B.C. overdose deaths would be twice as high without harm reduction: report

New research suggests the rapid expansion of harm reduction services in response to B.C.’s overdose crisis has prevented more than 3,000 possible overdose deaths during a 20-month period.

This comes from research led by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC).

The study estimates, without access to rapid scale-up of harm reduction and treatment strategies, the number of overdose deaths in B.C. would be 2.5 times as high.

“This study speaks to the importance and the effectiveness of harm reduction and treatment efforts and the fact that they save lives,” said Judy Darcy, Minister of Mental Health and Addictions in a news release. “This is why we took immediate action increasing funding and supports to connect people with overdose prevention services, harm reductions supplies, and treatment options. These services have saved even more lives since December 2017 and are essential to turning the tide on the overdose crisis."

The study reviewed the period between April 2016, when the public health emergency was declared, and December 2017.

It examined the impact of three strategies scaled up across B.C.:

  • Distribution of naloxone in the community through the Take Home Naloxone program
  • Expansion of overdose prevention services and supervised consumption sites
  • Increased access to treatments for opioid use disorder such as methadone and Suboxone, also known as opioid agonist therapy

“Without these interventions, there would have been many more deaths,” said Dr. Mike Irvine in the release. He is a postdoctoral fellow at the BCCDC, Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions, and Institute of Applied Mathematics at the University of British Columbia (UBC), who led the research.

“Despite a highly toxic street drug supply, the average probability of death from accidental overdose decreased because of the services provided to keep people alive.”

The study used data on overdose deaths, paramedic-attended overdoses and other sources between 2012 and 2017 to mathematically model the probability of death from accidental overdose with and without the interventions.

Its key findings concluded between April 2016 and December 2017, there were 2,177 overdose deaths in B.C. and during the same period, an estimated 3,030 deaths were averted by all three interventions combined.

The study concludes that in the current environment of a highly toxic street drug supply in B.C., these combined interventions have reduced the risk of overdose death, as compared to not having these strategies in place.

“Thankfully, the Take Home Naloxone program was already in place when the crisis hit so we could quickly expand and get naloxone into the hands of people who needed it to reverse overdoses and save lives,” said Jane Buxton in the release, harm reduction lead for the BCCDC who oversees the Take Home Naloxone program. “Since the program ramped up in mid-2016 in response to the ongoing crisis, we’ve distributed between 4,000 and 5,000 kits every month.”

The authors of the study note that further strategies are needed to address the contaminated drug supply.

The research also observed that when no interventions are in place, the probability of death from overdose rises.

“This is among the first evidence to show that a combination of harm reduction and treatment interventions saves lives,” said Irvine. “It is useful information for jurisdictions considering how to respond to the overdose crisis.”

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