Drug overdoses up, Hep C high
BY ROCHELLE BAKER, THE TIMES
Numbers in an upcoming Fraser Health report for the City of Abbotsford around injection drug use show relatively high rates of overdose hospitalizations, deaths and hepatitis C rates within the community.
And those rates may be tied to the city's lack of harm reduction services, says a Fraser Health expert.
Abbotsford was second only to New Westminster for the rate of people admitted to hospital because of illegal drug overdoses in a comparison that included Surrey and Burnaby.
Between 2006/07 and 2010/11, New Westminster's overdose hospital admission rate was 23.6 per 100,000 people.
Abbotsford's was second with a rate of 21.9, Surrey's was 17.3 and Burnaby's was 11.4. The rates are based on where the drugs users live, not to which hospital they were admitted.
Abbotsford's illegal drug overdose death rate was fourth out of five communities on a per capita basis from 2005 to 2009, although mortality from drugs in the city has been going down in that same time frame.
Vancouver's mortality overdose rate was first with a rate of 11.79, New Westminster's was 11.07, Surrey's was 9.01, Abbotsford's was at 8.08, while Burnaby was last at 4.89.
The data is in a Fraser Health report on injection drug use and a proposed harm reduction service plan for Abbotsford, which is reviewing its anti harm-reduction bylaw.
Abbotsford council passed a 2005 bylaw that bans harm reduction facilities such as needle exchanges or injection sites in the city.
Fraser Health has repeatedly emphasized the need to establish harm reduction measures in Abbotsford.
The report has not been released publicly but the Royal City Record in New Westminster obtained some of the data.
The report also shows Abbotsford has high hepatitis C infection rates.
Abbotsford's infection rate for 2010 was 64.4 per cent versus a provincial rate of 54.9 and a Canadian rate of 33.7 in 2009.
The viral disease is largely spread through unsafe drug use practises such as the sharing of needles or crack pipes.
David Portesi, director of public health and the report's author, said Fraser Health is working to provide Abbotsford with data on injection drug use and a harm reduction program if the city's bylaw is repealed.
The numbers around illegal drug overdoses, deaths and hepatitis C rates show Abbotsford's drug use problems are comparable to other large cities, Portesi said.
"Abbotsford has similar drug use issues to other major metropolitan areas in the Fraser Health Authority and surrounding areas. That's why Fraser Health feels Abbotsford would be a good location for harm reduction services," he said.
Fraser Health already provides harm reduction services in Surrey, Burnaby, Mission and Chilliwack.
It is difficult to determine specific reasons for Abbotsford's higher overdose hospitalization and Hep C rates, but the ban on harm reduction services may be pushing the numbers up, Portesi said.
"Fraser Health believes the lack of harm reduction services could play a role [in the rates] because along with harm reduction services come opportunities for patient education, which can possibly reduce incidents of overdose."
Although New Westminster had higher rates for overdoses, deaths and hepatitis C than Abbotsford, it was likely its rates were "volatile" due to its small population, said Portesi.
"Relative to other municipalities, New West is a smaller jurisdiction, which can result in rates that change significantly with just a moderate increase in the actual number of events."
However, Abbotsford's illegal drug morbidity rates - or drug use rates - unlike New Westminster, have been steadily rising since 2002, according to Fraser Health data.
But estimating how many drug users are actually living in Abbotsford is difficult, said Portesi.
A "very crude estimate" of the number of injection drug users in the community is anywhere from 280 to 470, said the Fraser Health data.
Those numbers are likely to be very conservative, added Portesi.
"The B.C. Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors has about 450 members, and at least half their members come from the Abbotsford area. And that's just the tip of the iceberg because illicit drug users are often unwilling to self-identify."
A drug user population count is not overly valuable because the number of people in that community constantly changes, he added.
"The important issue is to have services there to reduce the overall number and protect the health of those that actively use, and give them the option of accessing treatment and other social services."