OTTAWA — Newly released statistics on opioid-related deaths in Canada through the first three months of the year suggest such fatalities are on the rise compared to each of the last two years.
The latest national report tracking deaths linked to the painkilling drugs, released on Tuesday, shows there were 1,036 apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada from January through March 2018.
The figure marks an increase of five per cent from the same period in 2017, and a 44 per cent jump from the first three months of 2016.
At the end of 2017, there were a total of 3,996 opioid related deaths, compared to 3,005 in 2016 — meaning just over 8,000 deaths have been linked to opioids since the start of 2016, leading Canada's chief public health officer to warn that the opioid "crisis is not abating."
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"We continue to see an unprecedented number of opioid-related overdoses in Canada," Dr. Theresa Tam said in a joint statement with Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief medical officer and Tam's co-chair of a special advisory committee on the deadly scourge.
"The loss of life is tremendous and this national public health crisis continues to devastate the health and lives of many Canadians, their families and their communities."
The majority of the deaths through the first quarter of 2018 were in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. Tam and Strang say the data suggest increases in opioid-related deaths in other parts of the country as well.
There is no silver-bullet solution when it comes to the opioid crisis.Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Health Minister
Fentanyl or fentanyl analogues were involved in nearly three-quarters of deaths earlier this year — an increase again from 2017 and 2016 — and victims were most often men. About 94 per cent of all deaths were considered accidental, or unintentional, overdoses, with the largest concentration in the 30- to 39-year-old age group.
Provinces and territories have asked the federal Liberals for more help to combat the rising numbers, and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Tuesday the government was willing to do and spend more if that's what is needed.
"There is no silver-bullet solution when it comes to the opioid crisis," she said.
"We have to continue to work together if we want to turn the tide on this crisis and I am committed to making sure that we do all that we can. If there's more investments that need to be made, we will continue to look at that."
The Public Health Agency of Canada says that overdose deaths have historically involved long-term drug users, but that current statistics reveal a shift toward the drug-related deaths of people who take opioids for the first time, or those living in chronic pain.
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Tam and Strang are calling for a deeper look at the issues that lead to opioid and problematic substance use "in order to address the opioid crisis."
"We will continue to examine all available evidence to better understand the evolving trends of this crisis and to adjust our response efforts."