Newspaper article The Canadian Press

B.C. Drug Overdose Crisis, Deadliest of Long Career, Says Health Officer

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

B.C. Drug Overdose Crisis, Deadliest of Long Career, Says Health Officer

Article excerpt

After long career, official tackles drug crisis

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VICTORIA - Among the medical diplomas, certificates and degrees on Dr. Perry Kendall's office wall is a framed copy of a newspaper with a headline that screams, "City Doctors Give Okay to Socialized Medicine."

B.C.'s provincial health officer laughs at the mock front page of a Vancouver newspaper from 1951 that was given to him by his father-in-law, also a doctor.

The page is forward looking, similar to Kendall's approach during a 45-year career in public health that started in free medical clinics in Toronto and Vancouver, and now sees him at the forefront of British Columbia's overdose crisis.

The arrival of the powerful opioid fentanyl caused 914 overdose deaths in B.C. last year, almost 80 per cent higher than the 510 deaths recorded by the provincial coroner in 2015.

The British-born Kendall said his family roots have helped him drive health policy changes that were sometimes controversial, but now are common practice.

"My father was very socially conscious," said Kendall, who has been the provincial health officer since 1999. "He was a very ethical person. So was my mother."

Banning smoking in work and public spaces, providing needle exchanges to prevent the spread of HIV and opening safe injection sites for illicit drug users have been championed by Kendall, who was city health officer in Toronto and Victoria before becoming B.C.'s provincial health officer.

He recalls how former Vancouver mayors Philip Owen and Larry Campbell supported supervised injection sites in the Downtown Eastside, despite being at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

"They saw it as a health problem and a way to stop people dying," he said.

But of all the public health problems Kendall has dealt with -- such as HIV, AIDS, SARS and H1N1 -- nothing has been as devastating as the opioid crisis in B.C., he said.

"In terms of morbidity and mortality, it's way above anything killing people in the time I've been in public health," he said. "The issue is, it's not something that by and large everybody thinks could happen to them, which is the difference between an infectious disease, something that terrifies us like Ebola or a pandemic. …

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