Ontario ‘slow to respond’ to growing opioid overdose crisis: experts
An average of two people die from opioid overdoses in Ontario each day, but unlike other provinces across the country — there is no real-time monitoring system in place to provide a comprehensive look at the issue.
Experts say the provincial government has yet to act in a meaningful way to address the growing problem and Ontario’s latest publicly released data on opioid overdose deaths is more than two years old.
“Historically there hasn’t been as much action as I think there should be and moving forward we really need to see a commitment from the province and from Canada and the federal minister of health to prioritize this issue,” said Tara Gomes, a scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital.
“And that means really capturing all of this data in as real-time as possible so we can better understand what’s happening with opioid prescribing and overdoses across Canada so that we can develop programs and policies that we know will have the right impacts in the right populations.”
In Ontario, statistics on opioid overdose deaths are overseen by the Ontario Chief Coroner’s Office — but that data was last released in 2014. Meaning there is no up-to-date picture of how bad the problem currently is.
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“We certainly have struggled to have that kind of rapid access to information, particularly around opioid overdose deaths … historically the death data that we have is two, even three years out of date,” Gomes said.
“And as we see this emergence of new issues like the fentanyl crisis that we’re seeing in British Columbia come closer and closer to Ontario, it’s really imperative that we start to capture that data more regularly so we can see what’s happening in this province as well.”
The latest available data showed opioid overdose deaths rose to 553 people in Ontario in 2014, while fentanyl-related deaths climbed to 153, according to the Chief Coroner for Ontario.
Global News obtained preliminary data from the Chief Coroner’s Office for 2015, which showed there were 529 opioid overdoses in Ontario last year — 162 of which involved fentanyl.
An advisory released last month by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, the Waterloo Region Crime Prevention Council (WRCPC) and other groups showed 2016 has so far been a record year for overdose alerts and seizures of “bootleg” fentanyls by law enforcement officers.
“Well there may be some monitoring but certainly not at a level that public health units and others need to at their fingertips so they can put forward the interventions to reduce the toll from death and injury,” said Michael Parkinson, drug strategy specialist with the WRCPC in Ontario.
“Coroner dating in Ontario, despite best efforts, is two years past expiry.”
Parkinson said there have been year-over-year increases in opioid deaths in Ontario and across Canada, which are compounded by the emergence of “bootleg fentanyls” flooding the black market from China and other countries.
“We know anecdotally from community reports that bootleg fentanyls are here and I think it’s the feeling of many across Ontario that we’re a little slow to respond to say the least,” he said.
“If this is indeed a crisis we should be responding like it is a crisis.”
WATCH: Provincial health officer Dr. Perry Kendall has declared a public health emergency after 474 illicit drug overdoses in B.C. in 2015.
British Columbia’s top public health officer, Dr. Perry Kendall, declared a state of emergency in April after data showed the province was grappling with a massive increase in overdose deaths.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark announced a joint task force to tackle the problem she called “alarming and frightening” in July, after data showed there had been a 74 per cent increase in fentanyl deaths to a total of 371.
But Ontario has yet to take the same kind of action.
“Well we do have real-time surveillance and data that comes from more than 100 hospitals around the province,” said Ontario Health Minister Dr. Eric Hoskins.
“It’s on a variety of issues; mental health, alcohol abuse, overdoses including fentanyl.”
But that program, the Acute Care Enhanced Surveillance System, receives data from just 118 of 145 hospitals in Ontario and has information on opioid-related emergency department visits — but not specifically on overdose deaths.
FULL COVERAGE: Fentanyl in Canada
“Between January and August, 2016 (inclusive), there have been 329 opioid related emergency department visits in Ontario,” ministry spokesman Shae Greenfiled.
“That is an increase from 2015, when there were approximately 305 opioid related emergency department visits.
“We are proud of the steps we’ve taken but also know that we have more work to do.”
Gabby Rodrigues contributed to this report
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