Statement from the Co-Chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses and the Canadian Institute for Health Information on Updates to Data Related to the Opioid Crisis


June 19, 2018 - Ottawa, ON - Public Health Agency of Canada

We are seeing an unprecedented number of opioid-related overdoses in Canada. This national public health crisis continues to devastate Canadians from all walks of life, in both rural and urban areas. It affects people who use drugs, their families, their friends and their communities.

Today, on behalf of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses, and in partnership with the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), the Public Health Agency of Canada is releasing preliminary national data on apparent opioid-related deaths in 2017new data from emergency medical services and an update to hospitalizations related to opioid-poisonings. CIHI also released an update on opioid prescriptions in 2017.

Sadly, the numbers confirm our earlier forecast that close to 4,000 Canadians lost their lives in 2017 due to an apparent opioid-related overdose. This is an increase of 34% when compared to deaths reported for 2016. We have also seen the number of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths involving fentanyl or fentanyl analogues increase by 81% between 2016 and 2017.

In addition, in partnership with the provinces and territories, the Public Health Agency of Canada released data on the trends of overdoses requiring administration of naloxone by emergency medical service (paramedics) in six participating provinces and territories. The available data show that two out of three suspected opioid-related overdoses occurred among men. Canadians between the ages 20 and 29 represented the largest proportion of suspected opioid-related overdose responses by emergency medical service providers.

CIHI released updated data specifically on opioid related hospitalizations. In 2017, an average of 17 Canadians per day were hospitalized because of an opioid poisoning—an increase from 16 per day in 2016.

CIHI also released data on prescribing and dispensing practices in Canada. These data indicate that the amount of opioids dispensed per 1,000 population declined by 10% between 2016 and 2017. Fentanyl had the largest decrease (23%) in defined daily doses between 2016 and 2017. As well, the number of prescriptions for opioids fell for the first time between 2012 and 2017. Last year, 21.3 million prescriptions for opioids were dispensed, compared to 21.7 million in 2016 and 20.3 million in 2012.  

The data indicate that young men continue to be most affected by opioid-related overdoses. Opioid-related harms are rising despite declines in both the number of prescriptions for opioids and the total amount dispensed from Canadian pharmacies. Illegal fentanyl continues to be a factor in many opioid-related deaths and its increased presence and toxicity in the drug supply is fuelling the opioid crisis.

The data paint a complex and evolving picture of the opioid crisis in Canada. A number of factors may be directly contributing to the increase in use of naloxone during emergency medical services calls and hospitalizations, including:

  • increased public awareness of the signs of an overdose,
  • increased willingness to seek medical treatment when faced with an overdose, and
  • an increased understanding of the Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Act.

We will continue to examine all pieces of available evidence to help us better understand the evolving trends of this crisis.

We recognize that the numbers released today represent Canadians who lost their lives or who may be struggling with problematic substance use. We remain committed to working with all levels of government, stakeholders and people with lived and living experience to address the opioid crisis through increased harm reduction measures, awareness and access to treatment.

Dr. Theresa Tam
Chief Public Health Officer of Canada
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

Dr. Robert Strang
Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

David O'Toole
President and CEO
Canadian Institute for Health Information

Media Relations
Public Health Agency of Canada

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