Firefighters in some B.C. cities will soon begin carrying an overdose-reversing drug in response to an alarming spike in deaths linked to fentanyl.
The move comes on the heels of British Columbia's deadliest month for illicit drug overdoses in at least a decade, ending a year that saw a 27-per-cent increase in such fatalities. Fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid implicated in a growing number of fatal overdoses, was detected in about one-third of last year's 465 deaths, according to the BC Coroners Service.
The province is expected to announce the pilot project for select cities in coming days. Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner confirmed that firefighters in her city will carry the injectable opioid antagonist, called naloxone, by month's end.
"We're equipping our fire service people to administer that in overdose situations," Ms. Hepner said in an interview on Tuesday. "That will hopefully save lives. I'm kind of excited that we're going to be at the forefront of the pilot of that treatment."
A person overdosing on opioids such as heroin, oxycodone or fentanyl can lose consciousness and stop breathing, leading to brain damage or death. Intramuscular naloxone, typically injected into the upper thigh, can reverse these symptoms within a few minutes.
Currently, all paramedics ranked primary care and above carry naloxone, but police and firefighters cannot. In Surrey, firefighters are usually first to respond to drug-overdose calls.
Surrey is one of the cities most affected by a recent uptick in illicit drug overdoses, according to new numbers from the coroners service. It had 67 overdose deaths in 2015, up from 42 the previous year; Abbotsford had 24, up from seven; and Maple Ridge had 23, up from 14. As a whole, the Fraser region saw a 49.5-per-cent increase in illicit drug overdose deaths from 2014 to 2015.
Marcus Lem, medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, said the trend is "very, very worrisome," and called for more and better harm-reduction services.
"We need to have much better data around the overdoses, in terms of being able to identify who they are, where they are," Dr. Lem said. "Having much more detail would help us target our interventions much more effectively, whether it be education or naloxone or other types of things."
Dr. Lem said there have been considerable challenges and progress over the years, such as a decade-old bylaw prohibiting harm-reduction services in Abbotsford being struck down in 2014.
Ward Draper is a pastor at the 5 and 2 Ministries, which for years has distributed clean needles, crack pipes and other supplies to illicit drug users in Abbotsford in an effort to reduce associated harms such as transmission of blood-borne illnesses. He's pleased that the bylaw was struck down but feels "nothing elaborate has really happened" since.
"We can now offer harm-reduction services without being fined or harassed, but services haven't really dramatically increased," Mr. Draper said. "They've stayed fairly consistent. There's nothing well co-ordinated yet."
Abbotsford Mayor Henry Braun was not available for an interview on Tuesday.
Maple Ridge Mayor Nicole Read said her city has responded to issues of homelessness, addiction and mental health with the Maple Ridge Resilience Initiative. One component of that is the fledgling Strong Kids Team, which aims to engage children early on to forestall such issues.
"We know that kids can sometimes fall into drugs to self-medicate undiagnosed mental-health concerns, so we're working as a community at that Resilience [component], in our kids, to prevent them from getting into drugs in the first place."
In 2015, British Columbia's illicit drug overdose rate rose to 9.9 per 100,000 population – a figure not seen since 1998 (10 per 100,000) and 1993 (9.9 per 100,000).
Health Canada is expected to make naloxone available across the country, without a prescription, by mid-March.