Maple Ridge has had more than its fair share of drug overdoses so far this year, including five this past weekend.
On Thursday, the provincial government declared its first-ever public health emergency to deal with a sharp rise in the number of opioid drug overdoses in B.C.
Drug overdose deaths in Maple Ridge have also seen a dramatic increase. From 2007 to 2012, the average was four deaths per year, with high of six in 2009. That rose to 10 in 2013, 14 in 2014, 23 last year, and now eight in the first three months of 2016.
Maple Ridge’s 23 overdose deaths last year exceeded larger centres like Burnaby (16), Coquitlam (11) and Richmond (5).
Overdose 9-1-1 calls have become an almost daily occurrence in Maple Ridge.
“We get more than our share,” said Maple Ridge assistant fire chief Mark Smitton, who attended three drug overdoses Sunday alone.
He said there were also two on Friday.
Firefighters have responded to more than 20 overdose calls already in April, which is “a lot more than normal,” Smitton said.
The synthetic opium fentanyl is frequently the cause of the overdoses. Because it relaxes muscles to the point where users stop breathing, it can be deadly if the patient does not get emergency medical assistance, said Smitton.
Firefighters offer oxygen therapy, and now administer the opiate antidote Narcan.
Annika Polegato, executive director of Alouette Addictions, said fentanyl is a concern for addictions workers across B.C. because drug users are not even always aware they are taking the drug, which can be mixed with ecstasy, MDMA, heroin and marijuana.
The latter was sold with fentanyl in the Thompson-Okanagan region last summer, according to addiction workers there.
Fentanyl is dangerous in even small doses. Morphine starts to work in milligram doses, while fentanyl is potent in micrograms.
Alouette Addictions is encouraging clients to never use drugs alone, and is offering training – a one-hour session – in how to recognize a drug overdose and administer Narcan.
The existence of fentanyl in drugs commonly used by teens is a concern for parents.
“I would encourage parents to have open and honest conversations with their kids,” said Polegato.
Alouette Addictions is offering a forum called Parents Night: Your Kids and Drugs, on April 27 from 6-8 p.m. at Thomas Haney secondary. The forum will cover everything from drug trends to strategies for talking with your kids about drugs.
“It can be a difficult topic,” said Polegato.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Perry Kendall said the public health emergency situation will allow for rapid collection of data from health authorities and the B.C. Coroners’ Service, so overdose treatment kits can be deployed to regions where there are new clusters of outbreaks.
Overdoses have been mainly clustered in Metro Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, but cases have increased in the Okanagan and Vancouver Island, as well.
Kendall said there is no area of the province unaffected, and that is why he is using the authority to declare an emergency for the first time in B.C. history.
There were 474 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. in 2015, a 30 per cent increase over 2014.
Health Minister Terry Lake said kits containing the overdose treatment naloxone have been made available to paramedics, firefighters and police, but the alarming rise in cases means more action is needed.
“We have to do what’s needed to prevent overdoses and deaths, and what’s needed is real-time information,” Lake said. “Medical health officers need immediate access to what’s happening and where so they can deploy the necessary strategies to prevent these tragedies.”