News / Edmonton

'It’s absolutely devastating' Opioid overdose deaths see 40 per cent spike

But the province believes their efforts in expanding access to treatment is making a difference

Jessica Holtsbaum, co-founder Calgary-based Alberta Foundation for Changing the Face of Addiction with her brother Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal, who died of a fentanyl overdose on Feb. 17, 2016.

SYSTEM / Metro Web Upload

Jessica Holtsbaum, co-founder Calgary-based Alberta Foundation for Changing the Face of Addiction with her brother Nathan Huggins-Rosenthal, who died of a fentanyl overdose on Feb. 17, 2016.

Despite continued efforts from the province to stem the tide of accidental opioid overdose deaths, Albertans are still dying at an alarming rate, the latest numbers show.

The province’s third quarter report on Opioids and Substances of Misuse shows that on average, 1.8 individuals die every day in Alberta due to an accidental opioid overdose. In total, 482 Albertans have died in 2017, with 143 related to fentanyl in the last quarter.

At this point last year, there were 346 accidental drug overdose deaths related to an opioid – a 40 per cent increase in 2017.

At a media availability on Monday, Associate Minister of Health Brandy Payne pointed to provincial efforts such as funding more take home naloxone kits and supporting supervised consumption sites as examples of what the province is doing to reduce the deaths.

“I think the expansion we’ve done for treatment as well as harm reduction has been helping. For example the Sheldon Chumir Centre in Calgary, since the supervised consumption services have opened, we’ve had dozens of lives saved at that centre,” Payne said.

“We’ve eliminated the waitlists in the big urban centres through those expansions,” she added, noting that access to clinics offering opioid addiction treatment has expanded in rural and suburban areas.

The majority of deaths were in Calgary and Edmonton, and 81 per cent of deaths occurred in larger urban cities including Red Deer, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat.

In Edmonton, the neighbourhood of Eastwood, in the city’s north west, was identified in the report as the area that saw the most accidental overdose deaths. In both Edmonton and Calgary, the majority of overdose deaths occurred outside the downtown core.

Payne said the province has been working with doctors to address what is in many cases the root of the problem: opioid over-prescription.

“We’re starting to see that we’re turning a corner in terms of opioid over-prescriptions … I think the work the College of Physicians and Surgeons has done has been really great in terms of addressing some of the prescription guidelines. That said, I think there’s still more work to be done.”

It’s not enough to remind young people on the dangers of drugs – the province says they recognize the value of harm reduction, and has been pushing the importance of naloxone kits and safer practices to young people and in suburban communities.

That’s good news to Jessica Holtsbaum, co-founder of the Alberta Foundation for Changing the Face of Addiction. She wants to see the government educate citizens about how addiction relates to poverty, mental health and overprescribing.

“What we’d like to see done immediately is there’s a huge need for a very strong awareness campaign from the government to address the stigma associated with drug use,” Holtsbaum said.

She said she’s happy to see the government talking about harm reduction, but wishes they would have taken that approach before being forced to play “catch up”.

“We feel resources should have been put in place a long time ago when there were warning signs,” she said.

“When we see the numbers every quarter it’s absolutely devastating to see that. But at the same time it’s not surprising.”

~With files from Elizabeth Cameron

More on Metronews.ca