British Columbia

Fraser Health sees sudden spike in drug overdose deaths

17 people have been killed in a week by suspected drug overdoses in the Fraser Health region,

17 people killed in a week by suspected drug overdoses in Fraser Health region

Fraser Health is reminding people who use illicit drugs not to use alone, after a week with 17 suspected drug overdoses in the region in one week. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Officials in the Fraser Health region are warning the public after a surge in deaths blamed on suspected drug overdoses — 17 in one week.

According to Dr. Victoria Lee, Fraser Health's chief medical health officer, what's especially striking about the deaths is they're mostly happening at home when the victims are alone.

"We see this, really, as a hidden epidemic," said Lee, who said 70 per cent of suspected drug overdose deaths take place at home.

The death toll from drug overdoses, which spans the Fraser Health region from Burnaby to Hope, is also disproportionately hitting men.

Men working in trades over-represented

"This is a hidden population, meaning they're not actively seeking care. It's a population of men, aged 19 to 59, and they're not likely to engage in care proactively," said Lee, adding men working in trades are overrepresented in the data.

Health officials are trying to find ways to intervene long before a secret substance abuse issue becomes an emergency or death, especially in this hard-to-reach demographic.

"We're engaging people outside of health care, such as employers, technical schools and sports associations that can work with us to intervene and connect with these individuals," said Lee. 

Fraser Health has also found that in 80 per cent of fatal overdoses cases, the victim had made a visit to the emergency department in the year before their death. But Lee notes these people aren't at the hospital because of overdoses or to address their substance issue — they're there for various other things, like anxiety or pain management.

Lee said health officials are trying to better screen people visiting the emergency department for possible substance issues in an effort to make interventions.

Reducing stigma

"I think the most important message is that these are tragic deaths that are affecting our brothers, fathers, uncles. They work in important sectors within our communities, whether they're in trade industries or professionals and their lives matter," she said.

We need to make sure that asking for help is not seen as a weak thing, but it's the right thing to do. It's the manly thing to do ... It takes a lot of courage.- Dr. Victoria Lee

"We need to really engage with our friends, families and acquaintances to talk about drug use, substance use, as well as stressors in their lives and to really have opportunities for us to reach out."

According to Lee, men in the hardest-hit demographic also face a level of vulnerability that makes it hard to reach out for help.

"There's a lot of shame in even talking about any vulnerability that they might have. So, from what we've heard, they would rather treat themselves with illicit substances and self-medicate when they have stressors and pains," she said.

"We need to make sure that asking for help is not seen as a weak thing, but it's the right thing to do. It's the manly thing to do ... It takes a lot of courage."

Lee said that those not personally struggling with substance issues can still help reduce the stigma by appreciating that problematic substance use is a chronic clinical condition, similar to things like heart disease or diabetes.

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