In one week last month, paramedics responded to 494 suspected drug overdoses in Greater Vancouver, including 271 in the Downtown Eastside and 81 in Surrey. These numbers are not just alarming, but becoming alarmingly routine.
That was just one week in an ongoing opioid epidemic that has killed unknown thousands across North America this year. Even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control can’t offer a national estimate for 2015 or 2016; it says “Opioids were involved in 28,647 deaths in 2014 and opioid overdoses have quadrupled since 2000.”
That puts U.S. opioid deaths in the same class as firearms deaths, which have run around 30,000 a year since at least the 1960s. And like gun deaths, opioids are now a public health crisis we are stubbornly refusing to recognize.
Suppose those 494 overdoses in one November week had been cases of Ebola. B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake would have thrown more than $5 million at the problem, and his requests for help from Ottawa would have brought in many millions more.
And he’d need all the help he could get, because in the West African Ebola outbreak of 2013 to 2015, first responders and health care workers were among the disease’s victims — just as Toronto doctors and nurses were when SARS hit in 2003. (Vancouver escaped Toronto’s fate only because one nurse at Vancouver General Hospital read the Hong Kong media and alerted her colleagues when the hospital’s first SARS case turned up; the patient went into isolation.)