Nearly 14,000 Canadians killed by opioids since 2016, federal advisory body says

Close to 14,000 Canadians have been killed by opioids ​​​​​​and more than 17,000 have been hospitalized for opioid-related poisoning over the last four years, according to new federal data.

The report, titled “Opioid-related harms in Canada” and assembled by a national advisory committee studying the epidemic of opioid overdoses, was released Wednesday by the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Between January and June 2019, the latest figures available, there were 2,142 apparent opioid-related deaths. To put that six-month total into perspective, about 1,700 die in motor vehicle collisions each year in Canada, according to federally compiled statistics.

People who use drugs are advised to never do so alone. Health officials recommend having someone with you who is able to call for help or to administer naloxone if there is a medical emergency. (Christine Rankin)

Opioids are a class of drugs that includes heroin, certain prescription painkillers and illicit fentanyl. The drugs can cause respiratory depression, unconsciousness and death. When bystanders or health professionals give naloxone by needle or nasal spray adapter, it can reverse the effects of the drugs.

Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, issued a joint statement saying a bulk of the deaths were caused by illegal drugs being contaminated with toxic substances.

They said fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids continue to be a major cause of hospitalizations and deaths.

To put the 13,913 Canadians who died of an apparent opioid-related overdose over four years into context, about 13,500 people died from cerebrovascular disease such as stroke and aneurysms in just one year, 2018

The opioid epidemic in North America took off about a decade ago with massive increases in prescriptions of narcotic painkillers such as OxyContin, fentanyl, codeine and hydrocodone.

The problem was made even worse in recent years by an illicit fentanyl crisis.

Fentanyl, a highly potent and addictive opioid, can be mixed into opioids sold on the street. As a result, people don’t know the potency of drugs they may take.

Tam has previously said creating a safer opioid supply will require exploring what treatments people need. 

The data also shows thousands of Canadians continue to have non-fatal overdoses each year and hundreds of thousands more are affected by problematic substance use.

In their statement, Tam and Shahab said the opioid overdose crisis is a complex problem that will take time to turn around.

Western Canada continues to be the most affected by the opioid crisis, but Ontario has also seen a rise in opioid-related deaths, according to the data.

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CBC | Health News