A medical health officer says a new kind of drug is showing up in the illegal drug supply that doesn’t respond to naloxone – the opioid overdose reversing drug that has saved thousands of lives in B.C. amid the overdose crisis.
The drug – which can be legally obtained – is called benzodiazepine.
“While the overwhelming majority of illicit drug overdoses we are seeing are still predominantly due to opioids, we are hearing anecdotal stories from our community partners and provincial counterparts of benzodiazepine use,” said Dr. Shovita Padhi, a Medical Health Officer with Fraser Health. “They’re used to treat things like seizure disorder, however you have these stronger, unregulated benzodiazepines that are being mixed into substances.” said Dr. Shovita Padhi, a Medical Health Officer with Fraser Health.
”So sometimes you’ll get a double hit of fentanyl and benzodiazepine. They’re both down substances but they have different overdose responses.”
Padhi said there is currently no “antidote” that can be easily administered by the public for benzodiazepine overdoses.
“They have to come into the emergency department,” she said. “What we’re hearing about is a different kind of overdose happening. It can cause a lot of harm.”
Padhi shared the information during a Public Safety Committee meeting on July 15 at Surrey City Hall.
She told the committee that while overdose deaths are dropping in Surrey, the amount of overall overdoses remain about the same.
“We’re still seeing the same number of overdoses at our hospitals, while Surrey Memorial (Hospital) has seen a slight decline. Likewise, with ambulance events, we’ve seen a slight decline but roughly the same amount of numbers. So what does this mean? It means we’re still having a lot of overdoses, but it’s great because we’re catching these people early so they’re not passing away. Our services are working, however this really points to the fact that we still have a contaminated drug supply in our community.”
As for deaths, Padhi said she is “cautiously optimistic,” about the drop.
“Our deaths with respect to overdoses are actually declining this year. This is a trend we’re seeing slowly happening across the region. I’m going to hold my breath for the rest of the year and hopefully it keeps on declining.”
Padhi said most deaths are occurring in North Surrey, Whalley and “especially” in the Newton area.
In the first five months of 2019, 57 people died in Surrey, according to data released on July 11 by the BC Coroners Service.
Last year, 214 people died of overdose in Surrey, up from 181 in 2017, 117 in 2016 and 76 in 2015.
Surrey’s drug death toll is second in B.C. only to Vancouver, which has seen 127 over death deaths between January and May 31 of this year. In 2018, there were 389 drug deaths in Vancouver.
Fraser Health also shared other statistics on July 15 with Surrey’s Public Safety Committee regarding its harm reduction efforts, as well as various substance use programs and initiatives. The health authority stated that there are 119 sites in the City of Surrey distributing naloxone, and that more than 5,000 kits were distributed during 2018.
As well, Fraser Health said 507,330 needles have were distributed in Surrey between July and December of 2018 and that of those, 406,428 were disposed of appropriately. Another 32,889 were collected through needle recovery programs, according to Fraser Health.
The supervised consumption site on Surrey’s 135A Street, SafePoint, has had 130,323 visits since it opened in June 2017 and 1,158 overdoses have been reversed, according to Fraser Health. Another 28 overdoses were reversed at Quibble Creek’s supervised consumption site since it opened in 2017, and it’s seen 1,123 visits.
Padhi said Surrey “is a leader in Canada with respect to overdose response” given it is the “second most burdened community in the country by this epidemic.”
“We are working on a new initiative for second responder system that we’re having in place for people who have overdose in their homes, and having a team from fire, and mental health and substance use visit their home and maybe do an intervention,” she said. “We’re working with the trades industry. Just look around, there’s so much construction going on. But our data shows that many of the people suffering from substance use disorder as well as overdose and overdose deaths actually work in this industry so there’s a lot of targeting we can do there.”
Meantime, B.C.-wide, overdose deaths are down by 30 per cent so far this year.
Across the province, there were 462 overdose deaths between January and May, all caused by the illicit drug supply. That’s compared to 651 deaths that occurred over the same time period in 2018, when B.C. saw a record-breaking number drug fatalities.
In May, 84 lives were claimed by illicit drugs in B.C., or between two and three deaths each day.
There are still concerning trends, however. Carfentanil, a tranquilizer used for elephants and other large animals, has been found in 102 fentanyl-detected deaths this year, compared to 35 such deaths in 2018.
Roughly nine in every 10 overdose deaths are still occurring indoors, including more than half in private homes.
-With files from Ashley Wadhwani