Canada on track to see over 4,000 opioid-related deaths in 2017: advisory committee

A man injects himself at a bus shelter in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Monday, Dec.19, 2016.
A man injects himself at a bus shelter in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Monday, Dec.19, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Canada is on track to record more than 4,000 deaths linked to the ongoing opioid crisis in 2017, new numbers released Monday suggest, in spite of all efforts to reduce overdoses from powerful drugs like fentanyl.

In a statement released Monday afternoon, the government’s special advisory committee on the epidemic revealed that, based on available data from 10 provinces and the territories, at least 1,460 people died in the first half of this year.

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Recorded deaths in both the first and second quarters of 2017 are expected to increase as additional data become available, the committee noted, so that number is still preliminary.

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“Based on these data, we expect the number of lives lost in 2017 because of opioid-related overdoses to exceed the number of deaths in 2016,” the committee wrote.

“Tragically, if current trends continue, we may see more than 4,000 deaths in 2017.”

That kind of increase would indeed be staggering. In 2016, the federal government believes that opioid-related overdoses claimed a total of 2,861 lives across Canada, and earlier this year it was predicting about 3,000 deaths in 2017.

Car accidents, in contrast, killed about 1,850 Canadians in 2015, the last year for which data is currently available.

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The provinces, territories and the federal government have been working together since December 2016 to collect and share data on opioid-related mortality. The special advisory committee has been meeting on a monthly basis since then to talk about the opioid crisis in general, and more specifically how to support harm reduction, improve data collection and expand prevention and treatment options.

“We must not forget the cherished human life behind each death in today’s release,” the committee’s co-chairs,  Dr. Theresa Tam and Dr. Robert Strang, wrote Monday.

“To prevent further loss of life, we must continue our efforts to address the immediate crisis and, in the longer term, the factors at the root of problematic substance use.”

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While the opioid crisis has affected all regions, the new data confirm that some regions continue to be much harder hit than others. Western provinces and territories continue to report higher rates of opioid-related deaths, according to the numbers, and fentanyl is playing a bigger role than ever before. British Columbia continues to lead the way in overall deaths, with 798 recorded deaths as a result of illicit drug use between January and June 2017.

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In that same six-month time span, 74 per cent of apparent opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues, compared to 53 per cent across all of 2016. A large proportion of apparent opioid-related deaths continue to occur among males (74 per cent) and among Canadians between the ages of 30 and 39 (28 per cent).

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