The number of people who died of opioid overdoses in Ontario jumped 11 per cent in the first six months of 2016, according to new figures showing that the epidemic is rapidly moving east from Western Canada.
Ontario has not been hit as hard as British Columbia, the epicentre of the crisis where fatal overdoses spiked 80 per cent between 2015 and 2016. But the spread to Ontario is happening quickly, with at least 412 people dying of opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2016, compared with 371 in the same period of 2015.
"The numbers are definitely increasing and are definitely alarming," said Ontario Health Minister Eric Hoskins.
In an effort to help policy makers and health-care workers in Ontario better understand the scope of the problem, Dr. Hoskins unveiled an online surveillance system on Wednesday. The interactive opioid tracker makes a wide range of data publicly available, including the number of deaths, hospitalizations and emergency department visits from drug overdoses dating back to 2003.
It will be a few more months, however, before Ontario has anything close to real-time tracking of fatalities from opioids, including illicit fentanyl. The Office of the Chief Coroner has built a new centralized electronic database to house information on opioid-related deaths. The office began adding all death investigation cases as of May 1 to the database, which captures information such as the victim's age, sex, geographic location of death and type of drugs involved.
Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said at the news conference that it should take about three months to compile preliminary findings on each case.
Meanwhile, the death figures released on Wednesday likely underestimate the problem. In Waterloo Region alone, 28 people died in the first four months of this year from suspected opioid overdoses, compared with just 24 in all of 2015 – figures for 2016 are not yet available.
While illicit fentanyl is behind a surge in overdose deaths across Canada in recent years, Dr. Hoskins said the problem dates back to the introduction of the prescription painkiller OxyContin in the mid-1990s. Marketing by OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma "erroneously gave confidence" to doctors that opioids were safe to prescribe for pain relief, Dr. Hoskins said. "There's no question that has dramatically impacted the number of Ontarians and Canadians who utilize opioids," he said, adding that Canada is the world's second-highest per-capita user of prescription opioids.
Police and public-health officials across Ontario have complained that the lack of up-to-date statistics on the toll from opioids have left them struggling to track the scale of the problem.
Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott has also expressed frustration with those provinces and territories that have not provided data in the midst of a public-health crisis.
In British Columbia, the Coroners Service releases monthly reports on overdose deaths. Overdose deaths from opioids climbed 66 per cent in the first three months of this year in B.C., compared with 2016.
Ontario's Coroners Office has been working hard to catch up with British Columbia. Dr. Huyer said in a recent interview that his office is speeding up investigations by capturing any information related to drugs at the beginning of a probe, rather than waiting until it is complete to determine that opioids were involved.
All information on a drug investigation will be housed in the new centralized database. Under the old system, by contrast, information on opioid-related fatalities existed in individual case files, making it difficult to systematically review cases and analyze trends.
Dr. Huyer said much of the information about the toll opioids are taking already exists in his office but under the old system someone had to manually go through case files to extract the information.
With the new database, he said, his office will be able to readily look for trends, such as how many people die of opioid overdoses in a certain geographic region.