News / Calgary

Alberta reports nearly two deaths each day from opioid overdoses

There have been 482 accidental drug overdose deaths related opioids in 2017 so far

Jessice (left) and Alexis Hall tear up at an International Overdose Awareness Day 2017 event in Calgary and hold up signs picturing their cousin, Kenedee – one of thousands of Albertans struggling with addiction.

Jennifer Friesen/For Metro / Calgary Freelance

Jessice (left) and Alexis Hall tear up at an International Overdose Awareness Day 2017 event in Calgary and hold up signs picturing their cousin, Kenedee – one of thousands of Albertans struggling with addiction.

The number of Albertans dying from opioid overdoses shows no signs of slowing down – in fact, the latest quarterly report on the crisis shows the deaths have nearly doubled year-over-year.

In 2017, there have been 482 accidental drug overdose deaths related to an opioid, according to the province's most recent data – an average of 1.8 deaths every day.

At this time in 2016, there had been 346 accidental drug overdose deaths related to an opioid – that's a 40 per cent increase this year compared to last.

“I’m not going to lie, when we see the numbers every quarter, it’s absolutely devastating,” said Jessica Holtsbaum, co-founder of the Alberta Foundation for Changing the Face of Addiction.

“But at the same time. it’s not surprising … we feel resources should have been put in place a long time ago, when there were warning signs.”

Calgary-Mountainview MLA and former physician Dr. David Swann said the province has been slow to implement recommendations made in 2015 by the Valuing Mental Health Report, which he co-authored.

“This (new report from the province) is really an indictment of our current approach to mental health and addictions issues,” Swann told Metro. “A 40 per cent yearly increase is nothing short of a disaster. We need dedicated leadership on mental health and addictions in this province…we clearly don’t have that.”

He said addressing mental health concerns in youth, especially anxiety, depression and trauma, will be crucial to getting ahead of the crisis.

“This is a huge part of our health system now, and it was getting six per cent of our budget back in 2015 when we did the review,” Swann said.

“It’s gone up slightly since then, but we are not anywhere where we need to be when it comes to early intervention and prevention – we’ve got to get there so we don’t keep seeing these numbers going up and up and up.”

Calgary and Edmonton continue to have the highest number of deaths related to fentanyl, a powerful opioid legally prescribed for pain and often crudely replicated on the street.

The report also notes the final tally could still rise as the medical examiner’s office completes more autopsies.

Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne, who oversees the opioid file, conceded there is more work to be done but said recent measures by the province have been making a difference.

“Since the supervised consumption services (in Calgary) have opened, we’ve had dozens of lives saved at that centre,” Payne said, and added: “We’re working with doctors and we’re starting to see that we’re turning a corner in terms of opioid over-prescription, which I think is an important piece of this puzzle as well.”

Last week, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta reported a drop in the number of opioid prescriptions and daily doses in this province, although Alberta has historically had the highest opioid prescribing rates in Canada.

Holtsbaum said the province’s next steps should be educating citizens about addiction and mental health issues.

“We are happy with a lot of what’s been done by the government so far, but the problem is, they’re playing catch up," she said.

"There’s a huge need for a very strong awareness campaign from the government to address the stigma associated with drug use and educate citizens about addiction.”

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