Guest column: Overdose prevention sites save lives

Guest column: Overdose prevention sites save lives

The sites are located in larger communities of the Island — except the Cowichan Valley

Overdoses have taken far too many lives in the past 15 months in B.C. and the Cowichan Valley has not been immune.

This surge in deaths resulted in the declaration of a state of public health emergency in B.C. The cause is not an increase in drug users or drug use, but a change in the drug supply that is sold on the streets. Fentanyl and related drugs like carfentanil are being routinely distributed instead of, or mixed with, heroin and sometimes mixed with commonly used street drugs. These drugs can result in an unsuspecting overdose even amongst experienced users.

The most affected have been those who have lived with substance use dependency disorder for many years. These people are family, friends and neighbours — and so many in our communities have been affected by the loss of someone close.

During the same time, though unrelated, it appears the Cowichan Valley has experienced more outdoor use of illicit drugs which, in turn, has been associated with improper disposal of needles. This is a common problem in urban centres and solutions are also needed for this issue.

No one simple solution exists. For users, the journey that led to a drug dependency is often associated with trauma and abandonment. There is no choice about the next dose they need. Many would welcome a drug-free lifestyle if and when adequate supports and community understanding are in place. In this context the opportunity exists now to ensure better prevention, earlier intervention, effective treatment, and ongoing supports are in place. Two proven interventions that save lives and can lead to treating the dependency disorder are providing lifesaving overdose reversal with the use of naloxone, and providing a setting where overdoses can be treated if one should occur.

Since December 2016, BC Health Authorities have been directed from the Minister of Health to implement temporary overdose prevention sites where needed. On the Island, seven sites are operating with one more due to open within the week. These sites have had more than 16,000 visits for safer injection. The sites are located in larger communities of the Island — except the Cowichan Valley. A group of professionals in the Cowichan Valley who work on reducing the impacts of drug use and overdoses are proposing to fill this gap and expect to open an overdose prevention site in the upcoming weeks.

Overdose prevention sites save lives. They contribute to treatment and have helped address issues like needle disposal in the surrounding areas. Sites have opened with support of the majority who are well intentioned, well informed and community pillars. The question in the Cowichan Valley is not whether a site is needed; it has already received considerable support by local decision makers. The question is how to save lives and contribute to a healthier community through reducing drug use and improper disposal?

Central to this debate is increasing our personal understanding of drug dependency (addiction). The stigma associated with dependency is reminiscent of mental illness of the past. Only when we begin to recognize drug dependency as an illness will we embrace the challenges of ensuring effective and quality treatment and support.

Dr. Paul Hasselback is the Medical Health Officer for Island Health

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