First Nations Health Authority sees rise in fatal overdoses among Indigenous people

First Nations Health Authority sees rise in fatal overdoses among Indigenous people
Province of BC
A photo of Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer with the First Nations Health Authority

The First Nations Health Authority (FNHA) says 89 members of its community fatally overdosed from illicit drugs across British Columbia between January and May, which is an increase of 93 per cent compared to the identical period in 2019.

According to data released on Monday, the FNHA highlighted that the province’s ongoing drug crisis is disproportionately affecting Indigenous communities.

“These data demonstrate that the opioid crisis continues to disproportionally affect vulnerable B.C. First Nations people. The concurrent COVID-19 pandemic is also creating challenges for those struggling with addiction,” Chair of the First Nations Health Council Charlene Belleau said.

“Properly resourced treatment centres and culturally safe harm reduction strategies will be critical moving forward. Now, more than ever, our people need this support.”

The numbers suggest that 16 per cent of all overdose deaths in the province up to May of this year involved people from First Nations, MĂ©tis and Inuit people, despite only representing 3.4 per cent of B.C.’s population.

The FNHA adds that so far this year, First Nations individuals have died at 5.6 times the rate of other BC residents, while in 2019 the ratio was 3.8.

“These numbers are telling us we need to do more to support our people with harm reduction and access to safe supply because the COVID-19 pandemic is increasing vulnerability to poisoned drugs,” said Dr. Shannon McDonald, acting chief medical officer.

In a graph released by the FNHA, data shows that deaths from drug overdoses have made significant increases each year dating back to 2016 – with the exception of 2019. So far, 2020 is looking like it is on track to increase beyond the 2019 numbers.

The release of the FNHA data comes on the heels of British Columbia announcing its highest month on record for drug overdose fatalities.

A portion of the recent spike in fatalities can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The FNHA’s acting chief medical officer, Dr. Shannon McDonald, says measures to control the spread of COVID-19 have led to more people using drugs in isolation as they are less likely to access harm-reduction services.

She also adds that systemic barriers and stigma have prevented First Nations from using health services.

The First Nations Health Authority and the province each recently contributed $20 million in funding for treatment and support services specifically for First Nations, and the health authority has asked the federal government to contribute the same amount.

Chief coroner Lisa Lapointe says it’s “terrifying” that overdose deaths have increased overall in B.C. during the pandemic as increasingly toxic substances have hit the streets.

With files to the Canadian Press.

Graham CoxGraham Cox

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