Illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. jumped 27 per cent in 2015 and that grim statistic was even worse in the Fraser region, where deadly overdoses soared nearly 50 per cent.
A total of 465 B.C. residents died from illicit drugs last year, almost 100 more than in 2014, according to new statistics from the B.C. Coroners Service.
Fraser recorded the largest number of drug deaths of any B.C. region in 2015 – a total of 166, up from 111 in 2014.
"It's been particularly severe in the Fraser region," said coroner service spokesperson Barb McLintock. "That's really, really large even when you factor in things like increasing population."
Broken down by municipality, Vancouver still had the most overdose deaths at 118.
But Surrey had 67 drug deaths last year, a jump from 42 in 2014. Abbotsford had 24 (up from seven) and Maple Ridge had 23 (up from 14.) Other cities with 10 or more drug deaths were Nanaimo, VIctoria, Kelowna, Burnaby, Prince George, Langley, Coquitlam and New Westminster.
December was particularly bad, with 62 deaths recorded province-wide, the largest number in any single month over the past 10 years.
An estimated 30 per cent of overdose deaths involved fentanyl – either the dangerously potent synthetic opiate by itself or mixed with other drugs – and that proportion has steadily climbed over the past three years.
Because powdered fentanyl is often added to other street drugs and unknowingly ingested, public health officials say it's been responsible for an unusual number of overdoses in recreational or occasional drug users, rather than long-term injection drug users.
But McLintock said other drugs including heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine continue to account for more deaths overall.
"Fentanyl is part of the problem, but it's far, far, far from being the whole problem."
McLintock noted there are efforts underway to increase access to life-saving naloxone or Narcan, which can quickly stop an overdose in progress, by having firefighters carry the drug or by offering it over-the-counter without prescription at pharmacies.
"Certainly that form of harm reduction will help but it's still only good for the opiates," she cautioned. "It's not going to help your crystal meth and your cocaine users because it often doesn't work on those."
The provincial overdose death rate is now at its highest level since 1998.
McLintock said the death statistics are just the tip of the iceberg because many more overdoses happen that don't lead to fatalities, but signal a significant population taking serious risks with their health.