Scientific adviser appointed as B.C. sees rise in overdose-related brain injuries

British Columbia has announced the appointment of a chief scientific adviser to address a “growing population” of people who survived an overdose but were left with life-altering brain injuries.

It said Dr. Daniel Vigo is now B.C.’s chief scientific adviser for psychiatry, toxic drugs and concurrent disorders and has a goal to improve care for people with complex mental-health and addiction challenges.

Click to play video: 'Youth deaths from toxic drugs on the rise'

Youth deaths from toxic drugs on the rise

Premier David Eby said about 15,000 people in B.C. have died from toxic drugs since a public health emergency was declared in 2016, while many more survived but experienced brain injuries.

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Figures from the BC Centre for Disease Control show that 79 per cent of people who overdosed between January 2015 and December 2021 lived, but Eby said some suffer from life-altering brain injuries that affect their ability to function.

He said Vigo, who’s a psychiatrist and a public health specialist, will address the “rapidly emerging group” of people with the concurrent disorders who need specialized care.

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The premier said Vigo will analyze existing mental health and addiction services, while reviewing data and best practices from elsewhere to determine what could be done in the province.

Click to play video: 'More young people in B.C. becoming victims of toxic drug supply'

More young people in B.C. becoming victims of toxic drug supply

He said Vigo will work alongside the provincial health officer, health authorities, Indigenous partners and people with lived experience.

“He’ll advise us on new tools and give us advice to help this very specific group of people so they get the help they need, and our communities are safe and healthy for everyone,” Eby told a news conference Wednesday.

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He said data from 2023 found patients with overlapping needs who live and get care in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside often suffer repeated health emergencies.

Eby told the news conference of one patient who went to the emergency room 180 times. Four other patients went to emergency more than 140 times, while 612 patients went 10 or more times, he said.

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“The current situation is clearly not working for these individuals and it is having a very serious impact on our health care system, which is not addressing their needs,” he said. “One of the biggest challenges we face is that the particular needs of this growing group of people is not understood as well as it should be.”

He said that is why the province decided there was a need for an adviser.

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Vigo told the conference there is a high prevalence of brain injury in overdose survivors.

“For every overdose death, there are a number of overdose-related permanently injured brains,” he said.

“Overdose produces brain injury, and when that injury is severe enough to be diagnosed, preliminary evidence indicates that person has a 50 per cent chance of dying in the immediate future, and the survivors (have) an additional 30 per cent chance of dying in the near future.”

He said such injuries can also impair insight, judgment and ability to consent, “all of which make treatment as usual ineffective.”

“We need a whole new approach, one based on the best insights our evidence can produce,” he said.

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