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Dr. Bonnie Henry becomes first woman appointed B.C.'s top doctor

Public health, contagious disease expert replaces retiring Dr. Perry Kendall, taking the reins amidst the worst drug overdose crisis in B.C. history and pressure for more unorthodox measures

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks with Dr. Perry Kendall after an announcement in Victoria, B.C., Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Dr. Henry has been appointed B.C. provincial health officer after Dr. Kendall announced his retirement.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / The Canadian Press

Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks with Dr. Perry Kendall after an announcement in Victoria, B.C., Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Dr. Henry has been appointed B.C. provincial health officer after Dr. Kendall announced his retirement.

British Columbia's top doctor is, for the first time, a woman.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, a veteran public health and contagious disease expert, will replace her predecessor Dr. Perry Kendall as Provincial Health Officer when he retires later this month, the province revealed Wednesday.

Henry, Kendall's deputy for the last three years, will take the reins as B.C.'s next Provincial Health Officer. It's a key role in responding to health crises such as the current opioid epidemic, which Kendall declared a public health emergency in 2016.

Kendall and drug reform advocates alike have long argued addiction needs to be treated as a health issue, not an individual choice to be condemned.

Henry takes the torch in the midst of B.C.'s worst drug overdose crisis in its history. Last year, more than 1,200 British Columbians died from overdoses — largely caused by synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

"Dr. Henry has hands-on experience in managing large-scale public-health issues both internationally and here in B.C.," Adrian Dix, health minister, said in a statement.

An associate professor at the University of B.C.'s School of Population of Public Health, Henry previously served at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control — both as the agency's executive medical director, and as its head of communicable disease prevention and control and public health emergency management.

Those roles, as well as experience leading the battle against the SARS outbreak in Toronto 15 years ago and Ebola in Uganda shortly before, position her well to take on the challenge of B.C.'s overdose epidemic. Henry also sat on the Canadian Pandemic Coordinating Committee responding to the swine flu (H1N1) pandemic.

"With Dr. Henry, we have a direct and experienced advisor to steer and improve public health in our province," Dix added.

Her predecessor in the new role was awarded the prestigious Order of B.C. in 2005 and has been hailed for championing unorthodox approaches to the fentanyl crisis, including his emergency declaration, safe injection and supervised consumption facilities, and prescription heroin trials.

But drug reformers want more done on this front, demanding the decriminalization of so-called "hard drugs" in order to combat what Henry told Metro in an earlier interview is a "poisoned" street drug supply fueled by criminal activity.

"What we're really dealing with is a toxic drug supply on the steet," she told Metro in late November. "We also know some of the people overdosing and dying had prescriptions; we're still in the process of analyzing that, but we know a high proportion may have had prespription painkillers at some point.

"Right now we're just trying to deal with people dying from the toxic drug supply, but we haven't yet had a robust, seemless system to identify people with mental health issues or problematic substance use — and to ensure treatment systems are there for them in the longer term."

Henry has also been outspoken in her lobbying and criticism of Ottawa, which has resisted long-standing calls to declare its own health emergency to unlock additional funding and open new facilities.

"The federal government is coming around slowly to some of these things we've been pushing for some time," she told Metro. "But it's still taking far too long for things to move, in my opinion, at the federal level.

"My personal belief, which I've expressed to my colleagues in the federal government, is it would be helpful to have a declaration (of emergency) as a way to raise awareness and focus attention on what needs to be done."

Henry's medical degree was at Halifax's Dalhousie University, and she also holds a Master's degree in public health.

The provincial health officer's role is to monitor the health of B.C.'s overall population and advise government on top public health issues. The position is essential, the health ministry stated, in "providing evidence-based opinions" to government on health.

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