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Overdose deaths in BC climb to 7 per day; BC Coroners service reports

The BC Coroners service has released data from 2021, which shows the number of deaths from illicit drug toxicity continue to climb. The numbers also indicate more women are dying from drug overdose, and more people over the age of 50.

Toxic street drugs claimed the lives of at least 2,224 British Columbians last year. BC Chief Coroner Lisa Lapointe says the main killer in drug overdoses is fentanyl, with the much stronger carfentanyl beginning to show up more often. 

“This public health emergency has impacted families and communities across the province and shows no sign of abating. In 2021 alone, more than 2,200 families experienced the devastating loss of a loved one,” said Lisa Lapointe, chief coroner. “In the past seven years, the rate of death due to illicit drug toxicity in our province has risen more than 400%.”

The Service says there has been a 26% increase in deaths from 2020, as 2021 saw 2,224 BCers die from the ongoing crisis. By Health Authority, the Fraser and Vancouver Coastal Health had the highest numbers of illicit drug toxicity deaths reported (765 and 615 deaths, respectively), making up 62% of all deaths last year.

Similarly, the highest rates for any health authority were in Vancouver Coastal Health (49 deaths per 100,000 individuals) and Northern Health (48 per 100,000). In 2021 overall, the rate is 43 deaths per 100,000 individuals.

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“Toxic drugs in BC cause far more deaths than all other unnatural deaths combined,” said Lapointe, who then explained how it was believed prescription opioids were to blame, but that was not the case in BC. “From data shared by the BC center of disease control, we know that from March 2020 to October 2021, illicit drug toxicity deaths placed fifth in terms of percentage of total deaths in BC. The first four causes were malignant cancers, heart disease, Alzheimer’s / dementia, and stroke.”

The mode of consumption for opioids has changed, as the BC Coroners service says half of deaths from opioids come from smoking rather than injection.

Injection of opioids has seen a decline, from 39% of deaths in 2016 to 19% in 2020. However, smoking has risen from 31% of deaths to 56%. Last year, smoking was at 43%.

The Coroners Service says toxicology results suggest that there has been a greater number of cases with extreme fentanyl concentrations in Apr 2020-Dec 2021 compared with previous months. 20% of fentanyl-detected deaths in Vancouver Coastal Health had extreme fentanyl concentrations, followed by 15% in Fraser Health, and 12% in Interior / Island Health.

Male illicit drug toxicity deaths have remained at a steady high rate compared to female, and death rates for all health authority rates remain high. In 2021, 38% of deaths were 50 years or over, and 78% were male.

“The reality is this: every day we wait to act, six more people will die,” said Lapointe. “COVID-19 has shown what is possible when governments act decisively to save lives. And in order to save lives in this public-health emergency, we need to provide people with access to the substances they need, where and when they need them. Time has run out for research and discussion. It is time to take action.”

The Coroner says no deaths have been reported at supervised consumption or drug overdose prevention sites, and there is no indication that prescribed safe supply is contributing to illicit drug deaths.

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