COLUMN: Privacy policy on overdoses perplexing

Grieving mom says don’t hide victims’ towns

The province’s opioid crisis is truly frightening.

The death totals for 2017, released last week, are record-shattering – with 1,422 dead in B.C., including 200 in the Interior Health region and 19 in the Kootenay Boundary region.

About four out of five who died were male and almost nine out of 10 deaths occurred indoors.

The powerful opioid fentanyl was detected in 81 per cent of last year’s deaths compared to about 67 per cent in 2016.

And while the statistics are alarming, what is also surprising is the cloak of secrecy that surrounds the releasing of information regarding overdose deaths.

Last week IH reported nine people overdosed between January 23 and 27. The home towns were not released, citing privacy provisions. The IH is a huge area that covers 59 municipalities in the Kootenay, Okanagan, Cariboo and Shuswap regions.

Outgoing provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall suggested the high number of deaths in such a short period of time could have been due to a new dealer entering the region “who doesn’t know how to mix the drugs in anything less than a dangerous way.”

He stated they may have been part of a “trial batch” of the drug in one area. Despite that, the names of the towns and cities affected were not released due to privacy provisions.

That’s wrong, says Helen Jennens, a Kelowna woman who has lost both of her sons to overdoses.

“I don’t understand why the health authority wouldn’t release the names of the towns where the deaths occurred,” she said.

“You should make people aware and that you are at higher risk,” said Jennens, whose eldest son, Rian, died of a prescription drug overdose in 2011 and then her other son, Tyler, died in 2016 when he unwittingly took fentanyl that he thought was heroin.

Jennens is active with Moms Stop the Harm, a network of 300 grieving parents pushing for many law changes, including the decriminalization of drugs.

Dr. Trevor Corneil, VP Population Health and Chief Medical Health Officer for IH, said health officials weigh several factors when it comes to releasing the name of a town where an overdose victim died.

“If we feel the community is at risk then a decision would be made to release the name of the town,” said Corneil. In the past, IH has released the name of a town or city if more than seven people died within a short period of time.

Corneil said many factors are weighed and “you have to consider the privacy of the family.” He also said another reason to not release the name of a town or city is because the death may end up being classified weeks later by the coroner as something other than an overdose.

Jennens believes enforcing a privacy policy on such a broad scale doesn’t help at-risk people and even raises the stigma attached to the opioid crisis.

“This becomes very stigmatized for people who might be casual users. Everyone, not just those working with the street people, need to be aware of what’s out there.”

An outreach worker in an interior B.C. town agrees with Jennens and wishes health authorities would change its policy.

“It’s counter-intuitive to not release the towns where people have died. I don’t understand why. By not releasing it, casual users won’t know if there is a bad batch out there.”

“It gives publicity to the area where there may be a danger. Word of mouth does travel quickly on the street. but releasing it publicly would be that much better.”

Statistics released last week showed about 90 per cent of the victims in 2017 died while using drugs alone.

“These are marginalized members of society and we shouldn’t be hiding information like this from them” said the outreach worker, who also said the secrecy creates a greater stigma.

Health officials are pulling out all the stops to try to curb the crisis in B.C., including opening 10 overdose prevention sites and offering workshops on how to administer Naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug. Perhaps revisiting the privacy policy should be added to that list.

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