Ladysmith’s social service agencies want to “start a conversation,” one they believe could save lives in the community.
The opioid crisis has hit home, more so than many residents realize, and that calls for action, said Christy Wood, executive director of Ladysmith Resource Centre Association.
“The statistics are pretty alarming considering this is the small town of Ladysmith,” Wood said. “We actually have one of the higher rates.”
Wood co-chairs the Ladysmith inter-agency committee, which recently heard from Dr. Shannon Waters, medical health officer for the region. Waters cited newly available data indicating the extent of substance addiction and overdoses within the Cowichan Valley region.
“We were quite shocked at the statistics in terms of people,” Wood said. “It’s more hidden here because we are rural. What we thought was, ‘Let’s start a conversation.’ ”
Waters said data collected since she started in her role two years ago have shed light on the extent of substance addiction in Ladysmith.
In the Cowichan Valley region as a whole, there are an estimated 1,400 to 2,100 individuals addicted to substances, Waters said. As the crisis worsened, there were four fatal overdoses reported in Ladysmith in 2016 and five in 2017 compared with 11 each year in the Cowichan local health area.
About three-quarters of those overdoses occurred among males yet the proportion was higher, 89 percent, in Ladysmith. Most victims were age 30 to 39, but in Ladysmith they were older, age 50 and up.
“A lot of the deaths — over 50 percent — are people who were using alone in private residences,” Waters said.
That’s a key point. Health officials say social attitudes and misconceptions stigmatizing addiction present a barrier in the ability to deliver support services and treatment, one they hope to overcome through increased public awareness.
Stigmatization of addiction shames people and makes them more inclined to conceal their addictive behaviour. They may have resorted to opioids to treat pain only to find themselves prone to a potentially lethal dose laced with fentanyl. The risk rises when there is no one around to administer the life-saving antidote naloxone. Hence, the very factors that push addiction into the shadows in rural communities also increase the danger.
“Your neighbours might be struggling with this,” Wood said.
Since 2016, more than 10,300 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses. Despite a provincial health emergency declared three years ago to fully mobilize resources, fatal overdoses continue to claim about three lives a day in B.C.
There are means to address the crisis, Dr. Waters said.
“We’ve got the ability, because of the province instituting a public health emergency, to do things that are innovative,” she said.
That may include mobile lifesaving services, an approach being tested elsewhere on the Island. As well, there are technological interventions, computer applications that hold some promise, Waters said. Opioid agonist therapy, a substitution treatment, is used by more than 70 people in Ladysmith.
Health professionals are more convinced than ever that Canada should decriminalize addictive drugs in order to shift to a health-based harm reduction approach proven effective in other countries.
“Certainly, there has been a push to go that route from me as well as from other public health officials,” Waters said.
The conversation opens with a public presentation — including a screening of the documentary A Just Society by Cowichan Valley filmmaker Nick Versteeg — on Tuesday, May 7, 5-7 p.m., at Ladysmith secondary school.