The headlines early this fall were shocking. Kelowna had been identified as Canada’s OD Capital, and the battle against fentanyl, deadly overdoses and opioid addiction that have raged for the past two years continues.
The face of drug abuse in British Columbia is ever-changing. Overdoses are occurring far more frequently in private residences - where users are alone - than on the streets. According to Dr. Trevor Corneil, Chief Medical Health Officer for Interior Health, the highest incident rate is amongst males aged 30 to 49.
Kelowna’s death rate of 44.3 deaths per 100,000 people is slightly higher than Vancouver’s downtown east side. There have been 46 overdose deaths between January 1 and June 30, and it is projected that by the end of 2017 overdose deaths will double. Fentanyl has been detected in 90 per cent of fatal overdose cases.
Yet amongst all the despair and frightening realities, there are unsung heroes who are helping – behind the scenes or on the front lines – and making a difference in individual lives. They are often under-funded or overworked, but commitment and passion almost uniformly drive their efforts.
From her office on Asher Road, Sheila Kerr of Living Positive Resource Centre works with clients who face a range of issues from people suffering from HIV or Hepatitis C, to drug users and the homeless. They offer a broad spectrum of services, including detox referrals and the distribution of harm reduction supplies, to name but a few.
Sheila’s philosophy is simple. She believes that every individual life is valuable. Her goal is to ensure that everyone is treated with compassion and kindness, and to help elevate their lives to the best it can possibly be.
“I try to protect people’s health by reducing illness, injuries and death by unsafe substance use. We’re in the business of keeping people alive,” she explains.
Sheila’s first position at Living Positive was in 1999 when she began to volunteer there. Living Positive started as an HIV organization, to assist individuals who could be at risk for HIV or Hepatitis C including those people living outdoors or low income earners.
Echoing recent statistics, Sheila points out that 58 per cent of overdose deaths take place in a private residences. As of the end of August 2016, BC experienced 547 deaths. This year the number stands at 1,013 – a 79 per cent increase. And it isn’t just heroin users who are losing their lives. After fentanyl, the number two drug is actually cocaine, says Sheila.
That is frightening because it opens up a whole new market of users – those who use drugs on a recreational basis from time to time. In terms of “party drugs,” cocaine makes up 47.6 per cent of usage and heroin 32.8 per cent. Because of the contamination of those drugs with fentanyl, people are dying alone.
Living Positive is a busy place, and some days they see upwards of thirty to sixty people.