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A woman signs a memorial for overdose victims in Surrey, B.C., on Feb. 15, 2017.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Medical health officers in the Vancouver area are aiming to quickly warn drug users about clusters of overdoses and batches of contaminated drugs based on reports from people who use illegal substances.

Sara Young, the regional leader of mental health and substance use for Vancouver Coastal Health, said the data would help staff decide what action needs to be taken to prevent fatal overdoses in the midst of an opioid overdose crisis.

The pilot project started Tuesday with an online web form and a texting service that can be used by people who have registered to receive alerts, said Young, who worked with substance users to create the alert process.

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"We talked to people who are currently using substances and the feedback that we got was that we really needed to make this a simple system that could be used with a flip phone."

Young said service providers who may witness an overdose and call 911 could also report information including the date it occurred, the town or neighbourhood where a substance was bought, and its physical description.

Participants can also upload a photo of the drug and its packaging and do not need to provide their names as part of the project called Real-time Drug Alert and Response, or RADAR.

Currently, information about overdoses is analyzed from multiple sources including emergency departments, overdose prevention sites and Insite, a supervised injection site in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

"But that process can be slow and take a number of days," Young said. "If we can get information from people about what a specific batch looked like or what packaging it was contained in then we can quickly send alerts to the people who signed up to the system and say, 'Hey, watch out for this particular batch.' "

Young said drug users who are warned about so-called bad drugs tend to take precautions to protect themselves and their peers by using a smaller amount of drugs, going to an overdose prevention site or not using alone.

The project, which also involves the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, is expected to run for eight months in the large Vancouver Coastal Health region that includes Richmond, the North Shore, Bowen Island, the Sunshine Coast and Bella Bella.

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Nearly 1,000 people died of opioid overdoses in British Columbia last year, and 253 of the fatalities were in the Vancouver Coastal area.

Dr. Thomas Kerr, associate director of the BC Centre on Substance Use, said involving drug users, who are the experts on issues directly affect them, would be useful among other efforts underway during the overdose crisis that has claimed so many lives.

"The technology side is maybe a little bit different," Kerr said. "I worry about who will get missed because of that requirement of participation but I think any information that can be brought to bear on the response is helpful."

The RADAR project, which was launched as part of a joint task force last summer in response to the provincial overdose response, could be expanded across Canada, Young said.

British Columbia declared a public health emergency in April 2016 as the painkiller fentanyl was increasingly detected in multiple fatalities.

Since then, provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall has been working with health authorities, first responders and the BC Coroners Service to improve the sharing of data between organizations.

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