Joint Statement from the Co-Chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses - Latest National Data on the Overdose Crisis


March 23, 2022 | Ottawa, ON | Public Health Agency of Canada

Today, the co-chairs of the federal, provincial and territorial Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses–Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, and Dr. Jennifer Russell, New Brunswick's Chief Medical Officer of Health–issued the following statement on the release of the latest surveillance data on opioid- and stimulant-related harms in Canada covering the period from January 2016 to September 2021.

Canada's worsening overdose crisis continues to be exacerbated by the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. The latest data show that the number of opioid-related deaths remained high and opioid-related hospitalizations increased from January to September 2021. On average, 20 people died and 17 were hospitalized every day. The vast majority of opioid-related deaths continue to be accidental, and more than half also involved the use of a stimulant (e.g., cocaine, methamphetamine), underscoring the polysubstance nature of the overdose crisis. This public health crisis continues to affect communities across the country and people from all walks of life.

Public health interventions like naloxone access and training, supervised consumption sites and safer supply programs, as well as evidence-based treatments, like opioid agonist therapy, are all invaluable in preventing overdose deaths and reducing harms experienced by people who use substances. And while urgent treatment and harm reduction services are needed to save lives now, actions to address the root causes and broader conditions can help prevent substance use harms in the first place. Strengthening community and individual resilience by ensuring adequate and affordable housing for all, facilitating social connection in communities, and supporting positive child and youth development are important foundations for preventing substance use harms.

Addressing the stigma associated with substance use is also critical. Stigma in the healthcare sector contributes to and directly impacts substance-related harms, as people who feel judged may not seek help, or may receive inadequate care when they do seek help. These experiences can be worse for those who face other forms of stigma, such as racism and ableism. Healthcare providers have a unique and important role in helping to challenge substance use stigma through their work with patients who use drugs. We encourage all health professionals to take action to reduce substance use stigma across the health system, by providing compassionate, comprehensive, culturally-informed and person centred care.

Substance use and substance use harms are not standalone issues, and are often interrelated with other factors, including physical and mental health. In addition to the updated surveillance data released today, the Public Health Agency of Canada's first brief report on opioid pain relief medication use and mood disorders in Canada suggests that, in 2018, Canadian adults with a mood disorder diagnosis were more likely to use opioid pain relief medication than adults without a mood disorder diagnosis. As well, a higher proportion of adults with a mood disorder diagnosis also reported using opioid medications not as directed or for reasons other than pain relief, as compared to those without a diagnosis. This brief report demonstrates that there is a need to further our understanding of associations between opioid medication, pain and mental health conditions in order to inform comprehensive clinical and public health action to address opioid-related harms in Canada. The Special Advisory Committee will continue to encourage and support the improvement of data and analysis to inform these strategies and interventions.

While the overdose crisis remains a serious public health challenge in Canada, we can all take action to help prevent opioid- and stimulant-related deaths and other harms. To address this crisis, ongoing work by decision-makers, health-care professionals, and service providers to support people who use drugs and help them access high quality, evidence-based, and innovative care remains critical, alongside prevention efforts. We also continue to encourage families and friends supporting loved ones who use drugs, along with all Canadians, to learn about the signs of an overdose, carry naloxone, and recognize and challenge stigmatizing language and attitudes related to substance use.

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

Dr. Jennifer Russell
Chief Medical Health Officer, New Brunswick
Co-chair, Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses

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