Dr. Perry Kendall, who declared a public health emergency in 2016 over the province’s overdose crisis, will be leaving his post at the end of the month, when the deputy health officer will fill the position.
Kendall has described the opioid epidemic as B.C.’s most devastating health issue because of the high number of deaths from fentanyl that is cut into street drugs.
The latest figures from the B.C. Coroners Service recorded 1,208 fatal overdoses between January and October last year. Fentanyl was detected in 999 of the confirmed and suspected deaths during that time, an increase of 136 per cent from the same period in 2016.
“I’ve worked with, reported to, a series of ministers of health,” Kendall told a news conference Wednesday. “I think they’ve all been individuals who cared for the health of the population, and who, while they may not always have agreed with or appreciated my analyses or my recommendations, they did respect the independence of the office and gave my recommendations due consideration.”
Kendall was awarded the Order of British Columbia in 2005 for his contributions to public health and harm-reduction practice including the distribution of needles. He was at the helm of prevention policies for AIDS and HIV, which spread through drug users sharing needles, especially in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
He was also among those who called for a supervised injection site in the city and championed the use of medical-grade heroin to treat addiction as Vancouver became the first city in North America to adopt a European model aimed at reducing overdose deaths.
Kendall’s departure will cap a career of over 40 years in public health, which included health-officer positions in Toronto and Victoria.
Health Minister Adrian Dix called him “one of the most extraordinary public servants the province has ever had.”
Dix said Kendall’s report in 2002 on Indigenous health played a role in creating the First Nations Health Authority, still the only one of its kind in Canada.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, who has been the province’s deputy public health officer since 2014, said she has “very big shoes to fill in following Dr. Kendall.”
Making good health care more equitable among Indigenous communities as well as children and youth will underline her work, Henry said.
“We have made tremendous progress, and much of that is thanks to my predecessor Dr. Kendall in many areas, but there is still work to do.”
Focusing on building support for people struggling with substance use and mental health issues will be the crux of her work on the overdose epidemic, she said.
“We have led the country in both recognizing this and in trying to put in place a myriad of measures to try and keep people alive. I think the focus right now needs to be on communities, on individual communities, with their unique needs.”
Providing safe drugs to people with the chronic relapsing disease of addiction is key, Henry said.
“Right now the drug supply on the street is toxic and it’s killing people.”