The Current

'One of the worst crises I've ever seen': Vancouver Coastal Health calls for prescription heroin

Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical health officer provides a solution to the fentanyl crisis — access to treatment with medical grade heroin, and decriminalizing illicit drugs.
Vancouver firefighters try to revive an addict who has already had two doses of Narcan after overdosing on fentanyl in Vancouver’s downtown eastside. (CBC)

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The recent statistics out of B.C. on apparent illicit overdose deaths are shocking.  Across the province, 914 died of an overdose in 2016 — up by nearly 80 per cent from the year before.

Most of the increase is being blamed on fentanyl.

"This is one of the worst public health crises that I've seen in my career. I've dealt with outbreaks that have been challenging but the overdose crisis now causing 914 deaths in one year … those numbers are staggering," says Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health.

Related 'I was dead for 10 minutes': Vancouver's opioid overdose crisis

Daly has been a health professional for over 20 years and while she says the solutions aren't simple, the next stage in responding "is to rapidly increase the availability of effective treatment."

She believes a focus on opioid substitution therapy, that involves offering legal pharmaceutical substitutes so people can get off illicit drugs, is a necessary step forward.

"The more people we can get off illicit drugs, the more quickly we're going to be able to to see the crisis diminish," Daly tells The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

A research project in B.C. operated by Providence Health Care in Vancouver prescribed legal heroin to people who had failed other forms of addiction treatment that, Daly explains, showed cost-effective benefits.

"It showed that people could stabilize their lives, become much healthier, and get off illicit drugs with prescription heroin."

The B.C. is calling for a national strategy to address the fentanyl crisis. Daly tells Walker what she deems is necessary to create successful results.

"We need to get experts together establish the strategies that are important to get in front of overdose deaths."

"We need our addiction medicine specialist to come together to produce guidelines that we can agree to and follow for engaging patients in treatment," says Daly.

"And we need to reduce the stigma associated with these conditions even among some health care providers so that we're all clear that this is a chronic health condition."

"We need all levels of our health care system from family physician through to specialists to be able to address it."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Shannon Higgins and Karin Marley.

The Current received a statement from Health Canada which reads in part:

"The government's approach to illicit drugs will be a public health one. This was re-inforced... with the new Canadian Drugs and Substance strategy which restores harm reduction as a core pillar of Canada's drug policy alongside prevention treatment and enforcement."