Overdose deaths declined since 1990s
BY MIKE HOWELL, VANCOUVER COURIER
A total of 274 people died of drug overdoses in Vancouver between 2005 and 2009, according to preliminary statistics released to the Courier by the B.C. Coroners Service.
Though the number of deaths is significant, Thomas Kerr, a research scientist for the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, said the death toll should be put into context. Kerr said the number of drug overdose deaths in Vancouver has declined significantly since the 1990s.
"But it's still too high because overdose deaths are preventable," he said.
In 2009, 62 people died of a drug overdose in Vancouver compared to 140 in 1997, 191 in 1998 and 108 in 1990. Statistics show a steady decline of deaths in the past decade, with an average of 55 each year between 2005 and 2009. The coroners service has yet to release statistics for 2010.
Kerr pointed to the expansion of the province's methadone program for drug users and the opening of the Insite drug injection site on East Hastings in 2003 as factors in the decline in deaths. Drug awareness education for users has also played a role, he said.
"The reality is, none of these things are silver bullets and you need to do a little bit of everything and things will move in the right direction," Kerr said. "What people, I think, forget is that Insite is a small pilot facility and it serves a small geographic area. We know that from our data that something like 70 per cent of the frequent users of Insite live within three blocks."
Kerr, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, the city's drug policy department and several municipal leaders, including Mayor Gregor Robertson, have argued for more treatment facilities and injection sites in Vancouver.
Two suspected overdose drug deaths earlier this month in the same area of Kingsway prompted Ann Livingston of VANDU to renew her call for more injection sites throughout the city, not just the Downtown Eastside. A 19-year-old woman died behind a gas station in the 2200 block of Kingsway and a 26-year-old woman died in The 2400 Motel at 2400 Kingsway.
"They really need a place up on Kingsway because that's what these deaths indicate," said Livingston, the former executive director of VANDU. "We need proper injection sites, we need them as a program and we need them in any neighbourhood that has a lot of public drug use."
The Vancouver Police Department issued a warning to drug users Jan. 17 about the women's deaths and a third near-death of a man they suspect involved "potentially fatal heroin."
As of Thursday, police had received no further reports of overdoses involving what they suspect is heroin cut or diluted with an unknown substance. Typically, heroin is cut with other drugs or with sugar, starch, powdered milk or quinine to lessen the purity and spread out a dealer's supply.
The Vancouver-based Urban Health Research Initiative, which is a program of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, released a study earlier this month that reviewed all drug overdose deaths in B.C. between 2001 and 2005.
The study found rates of fatal drug overdoses were two to three times higher among First Nations people than the general population. The deaths were higher among First Nations women than men. Twenty per cent, or one in five of the 909 deaths examined, occurred in the Downtown Eastside.