Harm reduction halves death toll

Oct 1, 2019

A new study recently published in the scientific journal, Addiction, demonstrates that without harm reduction efforts the death toll from drug-related causes would have been more than double.

The study, which was led by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), found that between April 2016 and December 2017 there were 2,177 people killed by drug overdose in B.C. However, the study also indicated that more than 3,000 drug-related deaths were also prevented.

Mike Irvine, a postdoctoral fellow at BCCDC and principal author of the study said the impact of the widely distributed, take-home naloxone kits was the most significant action in overdose death prevention.

“In 2017, there were 60,000 kits that had been distributed, so this is paying tribute, really, to how much that program had ramped up and rolled out across the whole province,”

Mike Irvin, principle author of study

Over the period of 2012 to 2015, approximately 5,000 naloxone kits were distributed, compared to 60,000 kits distributed in 2017. The study examined the period spanning April 2016 to December 2017, and found that a total of 1,580 deaths were avoided due to access to take-home naloxone kits, 230 deaths were avoided due to access to supervised injection sites, and a total of 519 deaths were prevented by means of opioid agonist treatment or opioid replacement treatment, including methadone, Suboxone, and hydromorphone, for which 22,191 individuals received treatment in 2017.

Moreover, Irvine said that the three types of health interventions implemented resulted in more overdose deaths prevented since they were combined and would have been less effective on their own. According to the researchers, harm reduction services increased at the same time as the prevalence of fentanyl analogues such as carfentanil began to increase in 2016 and 2017.

“We know that this [crisis] is being driven by a toxic, highly variable street drug supply, there’s a huge number of deaths that were averted, in part because of the sheer volume and the scope of these services, but also the fact that the street drugs had become so toxic within that period. Deaths are still very, very high, and so more can be done,” referring to the opioid crisis which remains a major challenge for the health officials.

Mike Irvine, in interview with CBC.

Canada’s growing, national opioid crisis has been declared a public health emergency by Health Canada. According to data released by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), over 10,000 Canadians have died from opioid overdoses over the period of 2016-2018. The report shows that 93% of these deaths were accidental, with fentanyl and fentanyl-related drugs demonstrated to be the main substances causing deaths.