Drug overdose death rates two to three times higher among First Nations people in British Columbia

published on January 5, 2011

Recently released five-year study of more than 900 coroner’s case reports shows rate of overdose death even higher among First Nations women

Vancouver, British Columbia (January 5, 2011) – Rates of fatal drug overdose are two to three times higher among First Nations people in British Columbia than the general population, according to a new study by the Vancouver-based Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI), a program of the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE).

The study, published recently in the peer-reviewed journal Addiction, is based on a review of all deaths in British Columbia between 2001 and 2005 caused by an illicit drug overdose, as determined by the British Columbia Coroners Service. While approximately four per cent of British Columbians are members of First Nations, almost 12 per cent of overdose deaths involved a First Nations individual. The rates were particularly elevated among First Nations women.

“These findings clearly demonstrate that First Nations individuals are dying in disproportionate numbers from a preventable cause,” said Dr. Thomas Kerr, co-director of UHRI and a senior author of the study.

The main finding of a higher risk of death among First Nations individuals is consistent with the well-described disparities in health status between First Nations and non-First Nations peoples in Canada. Alongside higher levels of some determinants of ill health, such as poverty, sub-standard housing and lower educational attainment, First Nations groups have a higher burden of accidental death and suicide.

“Too many First Nations, M_tis and Inuit people are dying from drug overdoses in this province,” said Lorna Bird, president of the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), a community group of current and former drug users based in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood. “This is a predictable result of the high levels of homelessness and incarceration among Aboriginal people. We need to not only care for Aboriginal drug users but also provide justice and healing for all people who use illicit drugs.”

The researchers recommend that policy interventions to address elevated overdose mortality among First Nations should focus on the social determinants of First Nations health. These factors include elevated risks of poverty and participation in the sex trade, incarceration, inequitable access to health care services, and the legacy of abuse and trauma left by the residential school system.

Significant findings from the survey include:

  • Among 909 overdose deaths recorded in B.C. between 2001 and 2005, 104 (11.4 per cent) involved a First Nations individual
  • Approximately one in five deaths (20.2 per cent) occurred in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside
  • Among all deceased, 195 (21.5 per cent) were women; the mean age of death was 38.5 years
  • The number of overdose deaths declined during the study period, from 244 deaths in 2001 to 133 in 2005

To read the study abstract, please visit: www.cfenet.ubc.ca/publications/elevated-overdose-mortality-rates


About the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS:

The BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) is Canada’s largest HIV/AIDS research, treatment and education facility. The BC-CfE is a program at St Paul’s Hospital, Providence Health Care, a teaching hospital of the University of British Columbia. Located in Vancouver, Canada, the BC-CfE is dedicated to improving the health of British Columbians with HIV through the development, monitoring and dissemination of comprehensive research and treatment programs for HIV and related diseases.

About the Urban Health Research Initiative:

The Urban Health Research Initiative (UHRI), established in 2007, is a program of the BC-CfE. UHRI’s mission is to improve the health of individuals and communities through research to inform policy. UHRI research programs are based on a network of studies that have been developed to help identify and understand the many factors that affect the health of urban populations, with a focus on substance use, infectious diseases, the urban environment and homelessness.

For additional information, please contact:

Graham Pollock
B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS
[email protected]