Death toll increases in Canada’s opioid epidemic

(Photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / Novic)

The federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses released national data Thursday showing showing rising opioid-related deaths and harms in Canada.

The co-chairs of the committee are Dr. Theresa Tam, who is Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, and Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick’s Chief Medical Officer of Health.

They released the latest surveillance data on opioid and stimulant related harms in Canada from January 2016 to December 2021 as well as modelling projections on opioid-related deaths through to December 2022.

The latest data shows the number of opioid-related deaths remained high and continued to climb in 2021, with a total of 7,560 opioid-related deaths that year.

The number of opioid-related hospitalizations also grew from 13 per day in 2016, to 17 per day in 2021. While the average number of opioid-related deaths per day was eight in 2016, this number more than doubled, reaching an all-time high of 21 per day in 2021.

Additionally, the vast majority of opioid-related deaths continue to be accidental, and more than half also involved the use of a stimulant, which could have included cocaine or methamphetamine.

The latest updated modelling projections from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggest that trends could continue with opioid-related deaths in Canada remaining high, or even increasing, over the next six months.

The projections show that between 1,400 and 2,400 people could lose their lives due to opioid-related harms each quarter through to December 2022. Across all modelling scenarios, the projections underscore the critical importance of further action to address this crisis to prevent further deaths and other harms.

Substance-related harms affect people across Canada from all walks of life, but some populations have been affected more than others.

A new brief report published by PHAC, suggests that in 2016 and 2017, people experiencing homelessness were overrepresented in substance-related deaths.

The report provides information to help better understand the complex relationships between substance use and homelessness and points to opportunities for improving supports and reducing the risk of substance-related harms. While people experiencing homelessness represent a small percentage of those who died of an overdose, those who use substances face numerous compounding stigmas, tied to their housing status, substance use, and often other factors like ethnicity and mental health status.

That creates barriers to accessing social and health services and supports, therefore putting them at higher risk of substance-related harms.

The co-chairs summarized that the data contained in the release underscores the seriousness of substance-related harms in Canada, and the urgent need to take further action to help prevent them.

That includes the critical need to expand access to high quality, evidence-based and innovative care to support people who use drugs.

They are also encouraging families and friends supporting loved ones who use drugs, along with all Canadians, to learn about the signs of an overdose, carry naloxone, and recognize and challenge stigmatizing language and attitudes related to substance use.