Life / Health

Data shows at least 2,458 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016

Public health officials believe the death rate is 8.8 per cent per 100,000 people, and that western Canada is feeling the brunt of the impact.

OTTAWA — New data suggests almost 2,500 Canadians died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016 — deaths that federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says were preventable.

The data released Tuesday by the Public Health Agency of Canada found an estimated 2,458 people died of opioid overdoses, a national death rate of 8.8 per 100,000 people.

And the agency found western Canada is feeling the brunt of the impact, with opioid-related death rates of over 10.0 per 100,000 population in Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia and Alberta.

"The data gives us confirmation of the severity of the problem," Philpott said in an interview.

"These are preventable deaths."

Information from Quebec was not available but Philpott said discussions with provincial officials are ongoing.

"We hope to eventually be able to fill out all of the details of the data but the systems for data collection are different," she said. We will hopefully work toward that in the months to come."

The figures remain the best possible estimate right now, Philpott added.

"This remains a very serious public health threat," she said.

"We need all players to participate in the response ... We are very, very active on this file but we would certainly be encouraging provincial and territorial governments to be diligent, to be very active in providing a comprehensive response."

The numbers were released by the agency on behalf of a federal, provincial and territorial advisory committee on the opioid overdose epidemic.

The committee, created in December 2016, is chaired by Canada's interim chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia's chief public health officer.

Health Canada says opioids affect the part of the brain that controls breathing and taking too many pills can cause breathing to slow, contributing to unconsciousness and death.

Elaine Hyshka, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta School of Public Health, said it's positive to see Canada  moving closer to compiling a national picture of the crisis.

"It is encouraging that we are seeing some progress but ultimately this is a national epidemic," she said.

At some point, Canada must do better, Hyshka added, noting that this country falls far short of the U.S. when it comes to overdose death reporting.

"Our surveillance systems are a decade behind where they should be but if we are going to take this seriously as a public health crisis ... then we need the numbers and we need the counts to show this," she said.

"If that requires an injection of resources, if that requires compelling the provinces and territories to report data more quickly and figuring out different strategies to do that, that should all be on the table because we can't respond to this effectively without understanding it."

The process of compiling the new figures revealed challenges in public health infrastructure and the national agency's authority to gather provincial and territorial data, Philpott said.

"We are working to remedy the challenges that have been identified."

Any loss of life as result of an opioid overdose is a needless, preventable tragedy, Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins said in a statement.

"Through increased partnership, enhanced surveillance and data collection, modernizing prescribing and dispensing practices, and connecting patients with high quality, holistic care we will continue to take co-ordinated action to combat the opioid crisis in Ontario and across the country," he said.

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