The mixing of fentanyl with other illicit drugs has helped fuel the rise of apparent overdose deaths on Vancouver Island and throughout B.C.

Officials urge everyone to confront the ‘crisis’ of drug overdoses on Vancouver Island and throughout the province

Drugs may have played a role in the deaths of Errington couple in mid-August; fund set up for their children

The tragic and sudden death of a young Errington couple in mid-August comes as the B.C. Ministry of Heath has put out an urgent call for awareness and action to combat drug overdoses in the province.

The bodies of Dan Byron and Brittany O’Leary were discovered at their Errington home Sunday, Aug. 14.

“We’re still looking to determine the exact cause of death,” Barb McLintock of the B.C. Coroners Service said two days later. “One possibility is a drug overdose, but we’re exploring all options at this point.”

McLintock said the cause of death would not be released until toxicology testing is completed and a coroner’s report filed, a process that can take six to eight weeks.

Just four days after the couple’s death, the B.C. Coroners Service issued a bulletin warning that deaths from illicit drug overdoses in the province in 2016 have “significantly increased” over previous years. An accompanying statistical report included “completed cases where the cause of death has been determined by the coroner and cases still under investigation where the evidence indicates an apparent illicit drug overdose,” the Coroners Service stated.

Wednesday was International Overdose Awareness Day.

Through July, there were 433 apparent illicit drug overdose deaths in B.C. for 2016, an increase of 73.9 per cent over the same period in 2015 (249), according to a statistical report accompanying the August bulletin from the coroner.

Of those, 87 have occurred on Vancouver Island, which experienced 61 such deaths in the entire 2015 calendar year.

“Which means we’re at 143 per cent of our entire 2015 total in the first seven months (of 2016),” said Dr. Paul Hasselback, medical health officer for Island Health. “The increase on the Island relative to the previous year is greater than any other health authority.”

Community-specific statistics from the coroners service are available only for those municipalities with the highest death counts, including Victoria (34 in 2016) and Nanaimo (19).

“Unfortunately, we don’t have access to Parksville or Oceanside-specific statistics,” said Hasselback. “I do know that over the last few years, looking at the Ladysmith through Qualicum corridor, we’ve had more than our fair share of overdose activity.”

On the same day the B.C. Coroners Service issued its statistical report, the Ministry of Heath issued its own release, emphasizing its commitment to combat the “illicit drug overdose crisis” and announcing the recent formation of a Joint Task Force on Overdose and Response to lead the fight.

A sudden surge of apparent illicit drug overdoses early in the year in Victoria and Nanaimo led Island Health to issue a public health emergency. In April, the Ministry of Health declared a state of public health emergency province wide as overdoses continued to climb.

Hasselback said the increase comes in part from the addition of the drug fentanyl or some of its analogues to other drugs, which are then purchased and ingested by unsuspecting customers.

“It started with heroin, and now you see it being mixed with just about anything that’s a powder,” Hasselback said of Fentanyl.

“When this stuff is being mixed the people doing this sometimes don’t get it quite right. That, and a lack of quality management, is what’s led to this surge in overdoses and fatalities we’ve seen.”

Hasselback said the crisis is being addressed on multiple fronts, including prevention, treatment and enforcement, with some changes already implemented and others on the way.

The provincial Joint Task Force includes one task force charged with increasing public awareness through a public-relations campaign, the ministry reported. Another is assigned to continue expanding the availability of naloxone, a life-saving antidote that counteracts the effects of opiates like fentanyl and heroin. Health Minister Terry Lake and Public Safety Minister Mike Norris have also contacted their federal counterparts, calling on a co-ordinated, national effort to combat the problem, the ministry release said.

“It’s got to be approached across the full continuum,” said Hasselback. “No one solution will solve this problem.

An online fundraising campaign to raise money in support of the Byron and O’Leary’s children, aged nine and 11, had raised more than $3,200 as of Tuesday afternoon. Donations can be made at www.gofundme.com by entering “Brittany O’Leary & Danny Byrons kids” in the search field.

To get a naloxone kit or find out more on how to combat illicit drug overdoses, visit

towardtheheart.com.

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