Tackling B.C's overdose crisis in 2018: plans and strategies for the coming year

British Columbian health officials are continuing to battle the ongoing overdose crisis and tide of tainted drugs, with new overdose response centres and a project to distribute clean opioids to drug users planned for this year.

Five regional overdose response centres open in January, clean opioid project planned for April

More than 1,900 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency nearly two years ago. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Health officials will battle British Columbia's ongoing overdose crisis this year with new overdose response centres and a planned pilot project that will distribute clean opioids to drug users. 

More than 1,900 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency nearly two years ago.

Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer with Vancouver Coastal Health, said the new Overdose Emergency Response Centre will launch five new regional teams across the province this January. 

The teams will focus on supporting people at risk of overdose, addressing the unsafe drug supply, expanding harm reduction services and increasing the availability of naloxone.

"We also do want to try and get as many people as possible off illegal drugs and onto a legal alternative," Daly told CBC host of The Early Edition Stephen Quinn.

'Clean' opioids 

Last year, fentanyl was found in four out of five overdose deaths and new contaminants, like carfentanil, are becoming more prevalent.

"These are illegal drugs, there is no quality control," Daly said. "Fentanyl has really almost replaced heroin in the opioid supply."

Dr. Mark Tyndall at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control recently announced plans for a pilot project to give clean opioids, in the form of prescription hydromorphone pills, to at-risk drug users as an alternative to street drugs starting in April.

The pills are cheap, costing 32 cents each, and can be self-administered by crushing, dissolving and injecting them.

More than 1,900 people have died of illicit drug overdoses in B.C. since the province declared a public health emergency nearly two years ago. 8:20

Addiction treatment

Dr. Launette Rieb, an addictions expert and clinical associate professor with the University of British Columbia's faculty of medicine, said she is concerned about the risk of prescribing more opioids as a solution to an addiction crisis.

She worked at a mobile medical unit in the Downtown Eastside last year.

About 75 per cent of the people she resuscitated wanted addiction treatment, Rieb said, but many faced barriers getting into a program.  

"A focus on primary prevention and treatment is what's going to help the underlying issue, which is actually addiction," Rieb said.

Daly emphasized the focus isn't just on harm reduction: addiction treatment, community outreach and expanding options for pain control in health authorities are all part of the strategy.

"We are doing all those things but right now we need to prevent the deaths," she said. "This is a tremendously challenging problem, there is not just one solution."

To hear more, click on the audio link below:

Dr. Launette Rieb, an addictions expert and clinical associate professor with UBC’s faculty of medicine, said she is concerned about the risk of prescribing more opioids as a solution to an opioid addiction crisis. 9:47

With files from The Early Edition