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Ambulance crew members walk through the ambulance bay after delivering a patient to Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on Jan. 3, 2022.COLE BURSTON/Reuters

Opioid-related deaths surged among teens and young adults in Ontario from 2014 to 2021, according to a new report that also found a sharp increase in the number of young people visiting the province’s emergency rooms because of opioid use.

While the vast majority of opioid-related deaths occur in people over the age of 25, the fact that more people the ages of 15 to 24 are dying is a cause for alarm, said Tara Gomes, lead of the Ontario Drug Policy Research Network and a scientist at Unity Health Toronto.

The report, which will be released Tuesday, found that emergency-room visits for opioid overdoses among 15- to 24-year-olds quadrupled from 69 in the second quarter of 2014 to 297 visits in the second quarter of 2021.

Deaths tripled from 21 per quarter in 2014 to 58 in the first quarter of 2021, but there was a drop in deaths to 29 in the second quarter of 2021, the final quarter being studied. It’s unclear to researchers if the decline is part of a meaningful trend. According to online data from Public Health Ontario, there were 224 opioid-related deaths in the 15-24 age category in 2021.

The report was released by the research network along with Public Health Ontario and the Office of the Chief Coroner and the Ontario Forensic Pathology Service. It found that only half of the 15- to 24-year-olds who died had an opioid use disorder, meaning that many were likely experimenting or using drugs recreationally before they died. Almost all of the opioid-related deaths in young people were linked to toxic, illicit fentanyl.

“With this really unpredictable drug supply, they’re at really high risk of having a fatal overdose,” Dr. Gomes said.

The report comes as new national data reveal that more than 7,300 people, or 20 individuals a day, died as a result of an opioid overdose in Canada last year. According to the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses, it’s a 9-per-cent reduction from 2021, but still represents a major public-health crisis.

The federal committee also released new modelling from the Public Health Agency of Canada that predicts anywhere from 1,430 to 2,320 people could die every three months of an opioid overdose until the end of the year.

The Ontario report found that as deaths and emergency room visits for opioid overdoses rose among teens and young people, there was a corresponding decrease in the rate of treatment for opioid use disorder in that age group. Dr. Gomes said it’s unclear what is behind that trend, suggesting that there could be barriers to accessing treatment programs or that many young people tend to use drugs occasionally, making them less likely to seek help for an addiction.

Ontario opioid death rate drops in 2022, coroner’s data show

The majority of opioid-related deaths in 15- to 24-year-olds in Ontario occurred in males, although there were a greater proportion of female deaths in that age group compared with the 25- to 44-year-old bracket, the report found. During the pandemic, 76.6 per cent of opioid-related deaths among 25- to 44-year-olds were in males and 23.4 per cent were among females. But in the 15-to-24-year-old age group, 67.5 per cent of opioid-related deaths were in males and 32.5 per cent were in females.

About half of the teens and young adults who died of an opioid-related overdose in Ontario lived in neighbourhoods that make up the two lowest income quintiles in the province.

About 73 per cent of the young people who died in Ontario of an opioid overdose during the study period lived in a private dwelling. About one in eight of those in that age group who died was experiencing homelessness.

Dr. Gomes said the report is another reminder that more needs to be done to get the toxic drug and overdose crisis under control, including better access to harm reduction and treatment. But too often, stigma about drug use can stand in the way of innovative new policies that can help tackle this crisis, she said.

“There are different ideologies and different beliefs,” Dr. Gomes said. “My request would be for people to come together and set aside some of those preconceived notions.”

In a news release issued Monday, the special advisory committee on the epidemic of opioid overdoses called for a “bold, nimble, comprehensive and evidence-based approach to meet people where they are at, reduce harms and save lives.”

Earlier this year, B.C. became the first province to decriminalize small amounts of some hard drugs in order to combat the overdose crisis. While supported by many experts as an important step, the policy is also generating criticism from people who say the move has encouraged drug use in parks and other public spaces.

Dr. Gomes said it’s too early to say with any certainty what effect the new policy will have and that more time and research are needed to understand its impact.

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