Joint Statement from the Co-Chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses – Latest National Data on Substance-Related Harms

Statement

December 14, 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. Yves Léger, New Brunswick's Acting 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 from January 2016 to June 2022, and modelling projections on opioid-related deaths through to June 2023.

Since 2016, Canada has seen a significant rise in opioid and other substance-related harms, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic. These harms continue to have a devastating impact on people who use substances, their families, and communities across Canada.

The latest national data show that the number of opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations persist at high levels into the second quarter of 2022 (April-June), with 1,652 people dying of opioid overdose and 1,163 people needing to be hospitalized due to opioid overdose during this period. This represents a decrease in the number of deaths and hospitalizations reported in previous quarters since the start of the pandemic. However, these latest figures remain substantially higher than those in pre-pandemic years. For example, the data from January to June 2022 show an average of 20 opioid-related deaths per day in Canada, compared to an average of 8 deaths per day in 2016 when national surveillance began. Additional time and data are needed to determine the reasons behind the apparent decreases in opioid-related deaths and hospitalizations observed so far in 2022 and whether they will be sustained. What is clear is that substance-related harms remain an urgent public health crisis in Canada, fuelled by a toxic drug supply, with fentanyl contributing to a high proportion (76%) of deaths so far in 2022.

The latest updated modelling projections from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) suggest that the number of opioid-related deaths through to June 2023 may remain higher than levels seen prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. These projections suggest that, under certain scenarios, between 1,150 and 2,050 people could lose their lives due to opioid-related overdose each quarter through to June 2023.

The data contained in today’s release underscores the seriousness and complexity of substance-related harms in Canada and the urgent need to continue to take further action, not only to help prevent and reduce harms, but to also address the toxic and unpredictable drug supply.

Public health interventions to address this crisis across Canada include naloxone access and training, supervised consumption sites, safer supply programs, as well as evidence-based treatments and harm reduction supports, like opioid agonist therapy. These measures are invaluable in helping to prevent substance-related harms, in part, by meeting people “where they are at”, particularly when people who use drugs have access to a wide range of these interventions. And while our existing complement of prevention, treatment and harm reduction interventions are essential to saving lives in the immediate-term, there is concurrently a need for innovation in how we respond to this crisis, especially as it evolves, learning from the experience of other countries, and evaluating our efforts, to contribute to our growing evidence base.

To understand more about the populations most affected by the overdose crisis, PHAC released key findings from a national study on people who died from substance-related overdose in Canada between 2016 and 2017. This study is the first of its kind to examine detailed information from coroner and medical examiner files from each province and territory on people who died from substance-related overdose and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. For example, these new data suggest that during that time, at least 46% of people who died of a substance-related overdose were likely to have been alone at the time of their overdose, with no one there to provide naloxone or other aid or call for help.

These study data can help identify groups of people in Canada who are at higher risk of substance-related harms, better understand their situation and needs, and tailor supports accordingly. The report findings also provide an important baseline, prior to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the broad-scale implementation of many interventions intended to prevent substance-related harms noted above, and help us to better understand the evolving nature of this crisis.

Given the complexity of this crisis, there is a continued need to leverage many diverse perspectives and strengths to help to better understand and address it. Indeed, one of the key strengths of the above-mentioned study published today was that it was developed by experts in public health, death investigations, toxicology, medical anthropology and lived experience of substance use from across Canada. We need to continue to work together to reduce the stigma associated with substance use, which we know remains prevalent and can prevent people from seeking support and accessing care.

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. If someone you know or love is struggling with addiction, Wellness Together Canada and other resources can help.

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

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

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Public Health Agency of Canada
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