More than 17,000 have been hospitalized in what officials say is mounting crisis
Leyland Cecco in Toronto – The Guardian
Nearly 14,000 people in Canada have died from opioid overdoses in the last four years and more than 17,000 have been hospitalized in what officials say is a mounting crisis that shows few signs of relief.
In a report titled Opioid-related harms in Canada released this week, Canada’s public health agency outlined the scope of the crisis.
“The opioid overdose crisis continues to devastate many Canadians, their families and their communities from coast to coast to coast,” Dr Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, and Dr Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, said in a joint statement issued alongside the report.
“It’s very disturbing to see these kind of numbers,” said Dr Anita Srivastava, a physician professor of medicine at the University of Toronto
Because almost all of the deaths recorded were determined to be accidental, health officials fear the extent to which street drugs are tainted with potent and toxic substances is poorly understood by the public.
At the same time, a proliferation of opioid prescriptions over the last decade has exacerbated the problem: Canada remains one of the largest per capita consumers of prescription opioids in the world.
Srivastava points to a “fragmented” healthcare system ill-equipped to blunt the growing crisis: opioid treatment is often limited to specialized clinics, meaning not all health centres are properly equipped to identify and deal with patients displaying symptoms of addiction.
“If somebody shows up in the emergency room with an infection related to injecting opiates, more likely than not, they won’t get offered treatment for opiate addiction,” she said.
While few places in the country have been spared by the crisis, western Canada continues to be the site of the most troubling statistics. British Columbia’s rate of 22 deaths for every 100,000 residents is double the national average. Neighbouring Alberta has the second-highest rate in the country, at 16.2 deaths.
According to the report, men make up three-quarters of all opioid-related deaths, with those in their 30s at greatest risk of a fatal overdose.
Over the summer, Canada’s governing Liberal party promised to increase funding to to combat the crisis, raising the total amount committed to $100m. Part of the effort includes greater resources for rural communities – among the worst hit – as well as the deployment of lifesaving naloxone kits and more resources for hospitals.
Canada has also passed legislation to increase the number of safe injection sites, a move welcomed by addiction advocates amid criticism from conservative politicians.
While the report’s authors acknowledge the complexity of the the crisis, they stress the importance of overcoming many of the stigmas associated with addiction –something Srivastava often sees firsthand.
“Addiction is a great equalizer. It doesn’t spare anybody and it goes across all spectrums of people,” said Srivastava. “But there’s very much this feeling [among the public] that it’s not us that’s being affected; it’s somebody else.”