Drug overdose deaths in Maple Ridge had been trending downward, but the latest statistics released by the B.C. Coroner’s Service revealed there were seven more deaths in October and November.
That brought the number of overdose deaths in the city to 27 through 2018. There were 33 in all of last year.
“It’s tragic,” said Kat Wahamaa, who is the co-chair of the community action team charged with reducing overdoses in the city.
“That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
She lost her son to a drug overdose and since has been an active volunteer, campaigning for awareness and change.
“My son’s birthday was Christmas day. Those kids you hear in the background are his kids,” she said.
“How many people lost their lives on Christmas Day?”
There has been an average of four overdose deaths a day in B.C.
Despite increased public awareness and getting naloxone in the hands of people who can use the opioid antidote to save lives, the number of deaths in B.C. will be almost the same as it was in 2017.
Illicit drug overdoses were the cause behind 1,380 deaths so far this year in B.C., according to the Coroners Service.
The new data detailing the number of fatal overdoses, released Thursday, highlights the continuing concern of illicit opioids wreaking havoc on all corners of the province. This year, there has only been one less death than in 2017, when B.C. saw the most fatal overdoses in its history.
According to finished investigations and autopsies performed between January and September, fentanyl was found in 85 per cent of all deaths, compared to 82 per cent in 2017. Vancouver, Surrey and Victoria have seen the most deaths, totaling 361, 195 and 85, respectively.
Maple Ridge was given funding for an Opioid Overdose Response Task Group through Fraser Health, and Wahamaa chairs the group along with medical health officer Dr. Ingrid Tyler.
Their public awareness, efforts to train people to use naloxone kits, messaging such as not to use drugs alone, appeared to have been making a difference. Now it appears the statistics will be similar to last year.
“There’s no way to predict statistics,” said Wahamaa.
“We still have an illicit supply that is toxic.”
She points out there have been no deaths at safe injection sites, and says harm reduction initiatives are the answer, in her opinion. She said safe injection sites, decriminalization, and a safe supply for addicts are all potential solutions that could save lives.
“It [addiction] is an illness, not a moral failing.”
Susan Carr, who is also on the community action team, said the statistics help the task group get the message to people who need to hear it – men in the trades between the ages of 25-59 have been identified as being at risk of overdosing, and they are more likely to use alone than people who are on the streets or marginalized.
“How can we get the message to those people who use by themselves,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re going to stop it. We live in a drug culture and there is so much access to drugs.”
Their action team will be keeping the issue in front of the public.
There have been gallery works and public awareness campaigns. Coming up, Cinema Politica will screen the documentary Painkiller: Inside the Opioid Crisis on Jan. 17 at city hall.
A community resilience conference is coming up in February, which will bring together service providers, drug users, their family members and others together. People with lived experience will talk about how best to respond to the opioid crisis, she said.
Wahamaa said she recently joined and new and growing group called Moms Stop the Harm, which deals with issues such as safe supply. She is a regional liaison.
“It has an active and unfortunately growing membership,” she said of the group.
When she speaks to people about the opioid epidemic, Wahamaa said she doesn’t bring bar graphs or charts showing the rise in overdose deaths to show the loss. She brings a photo of her son.
“The more the numbers go up, the less people are connected to individuals.”
– with files by