Dr. Kenneth Tupper, director of implementation and partnerships at the BCCSU; Kevin McCort, president and CEO of Vancouver Foundation; and Dr. Jade Boyd, research scientist at the BCCSU.

Research Breakthroughs: Overdose Crisis Intervention

Promise Magazine: Spring/Summer 2018
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By Gail Johnson | Photography by Jeff Topham

Vancouver Foundation steps up for the community in a time of crisis, making significant donations to support the work of the BC Centre on Substance Use

As BC grapples with the fentanyl crisis, opioid-related overdoses have become the province’s leading cause of unnatural death. The BC Centre on Substance Use (BCCSU), based at St. Paul’s, has taken a leading role in responding to this unprecedented public-health emergency. The public is also responding; Vancouver Foundation, Canada’s largest community foundation, is working to connect donors with non-profits, like St. Paul’s Foundation, in an effort to build meaningful and lasting change, when and where it is needed most. Most recently, Vancouver Foundation committed support to the BCCSU, which has enabled the centre to launch several key initiatives aimed at preventing deadly overdoses.

Research into drug checking is one of them. Of the 1,422 overdose deaths that occurred in the province last year, over 80 per cent involved fentanyl. Drug checking, using a quick and portable Fourier-Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) machine, allows people to have the contents of street-acquired drugs analyzed on the spot and receive fact-based consultation about those compounds and their associated risks. This enables clients to make choices about where, how much, with whom or even whether to use the illicit drug they’ve obtained, which often isn’t what they thought it was. BCCSU is testing the drug-checking service in Vancouver, the first project of its kind in Canada.

“Drug checking puts in place a consumer safety mechanism,” says project lead Dr. Kenneth Tupper, BCCSU’s director of implementation and partnerships. Tupper notes that the majority of the nearly 1,000 samples tested by the BCCSU between November 2017 and February 2018 were opioids (60 per cent). Of these samples, 88 per cent tested positive for fentanyl, and while the vast majority of opioid-using clients said they had bought “heroin,” only 18 per cent of samples were found to contain actual heroin (diacetylmorphine). “There’s no quality control over the distribution of illicit substances. This testing gives information directly to clients to allow for better-informed and safer decision-making,” Tupper says.

The service has other important functions. Results are shared with public-health authorities, providing a snapshot of what’s circulating in the illegal drug market. Officials are then able to identify trends, issue safety alerts and develop responses.

“There is also the attraction of helping to bring people who may not be connected to services into the health system in some way,” Tupper adds.

“We know one of the largest groups of people at risk of dying is people using at home alone. We’re hoping that with the knowledge that this kind of service exists, the drug-checking service will be a point of contact for people otherwise disconnected from health care.”

Dr. Ian Garber (centre) demonstrates how the drug checking
machine works

One drug-checking machine is currently in use at two authorized-injection sites in Vancouver. With the support from Vancouver Foundation, the pilot will soon be scaled up and offered in other health regions, and evaluated for its role in helping avert overdose deaths. The BCCSU is currently working with Vancouver Coastal Health and Interior Health to expand the FTIR spectrometer service.

Transformative Gifts

Vancouver Foundation recently made two major gifts to the BCCSU: $1 million in September 2017 to support the overdose crisis response, which includes the drug checking service, and $224,000 in December 2017 to support a project called “Expanding Peer Involvement in Substance Use Care.”

Vancouver Foundation has a long history of helping to meet the community’s needs. Kevin McCort, Vancouver Foundation president and CEO, explains that the organization relies on community experts to review funding proposals using a rigorous peer-review process. Celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the foundation identified responding to the overdose crisis as an urgent need.

“Our unique partnership with the BCCSU and St. Paul’s Foundation marks the start of a focused effort in addressing our community’s needs throughout this crisis. One thing we appreciate about the BCCSU is that it links back to the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, a very successful institution that changed the course of the HIV epidemic not just in BC but internationally,” McCort says. “Maybe we’ll see history repeating itself with substance use. The BCCSU has globally recognized expertise and is following similar research methods: the best science possible, strong community collaboration and work that is very much informed by those affected.”

An in-depth look at the results of the drug checking pilot can be found in the coming months at www.bccsu.ca. Give now to support this great work at BCCSU.

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Making a Difference

St. Paul’s Foundation would like to thank our generous donors who support the incredible work of the BCCSU. Donors of $1 million or more to the BCCSU over the past 18 months:

  • Vancouver Foundation
  • Peter Bull (donor-advised funds through the Vancouver Foundation)
  • Milan & Maureen Ilich Foundation
  • The John Volken Foundation

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