Canada is on pace to lose more than 4,000 people to opioid-related deaths this year – with about one-third of them in British Columbia, according to new figures from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The grim update was in a national report the federal government released on Monday. The report described the country's opioid crisis as "serious and growing," devastating families and communities nationwide.
"Tragically, the data released today indicate that the crisis continues to worsen, despite the efforts from all levels of government and partners to reverse the trend," chief public health officer Theresa Tam and Nova Scotia chief medical officer of health Robert Strang, co-chairs of Canada's special advisory committee on opioids, said in a statement.
"While epidemiological data are crucial to understanding and addressing the opioid crisis, we must not forget the cherished human life behind each death in today's release. To prevent further loss of life, we must continue our efforts to address the immediate crisis and, in the longer term, the factors at the root of problematic substance use."
The statement said Ottawa is working with provinces and territories "on a special study to better understand the context of opioid-related deaths as well as initiatives to advance harm reduction approaches and support prevention efforts," but provided no further details.
Neither Dr. Tam nor Dr. Strang were available for interviews on Monday.
The projection is based on provincial and territorial data showing that at least 1,460 people died of opioid-related overdoses in the first half of 2017. This figure will rise as more cases are concluded and more data become available.
Dr. Tam and Dr. Strang said Canada may have more than 4,000 deaths by year's end if current trends continue. This would be a 40-per-cent increase from 2016, when 2,861 people died of apparent opioid-related overdoses. In comparison, an average of about 2,000 people have died from motor-vehicle collisions every year from 2010 to 2015, Transport Canada says.
About one-third of the 4,000 deaths is expected to be in B.C., which recorded about 1,000 fentanyl-related deaths out of a total of 1,208 illicit drug deaths in the first 10 months of the year. The hard-hit province had an overdose death rate of 20.7 per 100,000 population.
The new data also reaffirm the fact that fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that has flooded the illicit drug market in the past five years, has fuelled the surge in overdose deaths. From January through June, 74 per cent of all apparent opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl or drugs chemically similar to fentanyl, compared with 53 per cent in 2016.
The highest rate was in B.C., where 83 per cent of all overdose deaths this year involved fentanyl.
Among other findings: Three-quarters (74 per cent) of deaths were among men and 28 per cent were among people between the ages of 30 and 39.
Speaking at a conference on substance use in Calgary last month, federal Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor announced several initiatives the government is supporting in efforts to turn the tide on the overdose crisis.
They include issuing federal permits for provinces to quickly open overdose-prevention sites – official supervised-consumption sites are subject to a lengthier approval process – permission to offer users the opportunity to check their drugs for fentanyl at all such sites, and support of "innovative pilot projects that will provide a safer opioid alternative."
Ottawa is also looking into removing the special exemption required for methadone prescribing, as well as changes that would allow pharmaceutical-grade heroin to be administered to patients outside a hospital as part of maintenance therapy.
Canada has approved about 30 supervised-consumption sites to date.