TORONTO – The federal government says at least 2,816 deaths in 2016 were linked to the opioid crisis and that number “will almost certainly” surpass 3,000 in 2017.
Nearly three-quarters of the Canadians who died of opioid-related causes last year were male, while 84 per cent of the deaths involved another intoxicating substance such as alcohol, cocaine or prescription drugs.
Just over half of the deaths were linked to fentanyl-related opioids.
On Thursday, a report by the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) warned the opioid crisis is having a significant impact on the health system as a growing number of Canadians seek emergency hospital care for overdoses.
In 2016-17, 16 Canadians a day were admitted to hospital for opioid toxicity, up from 13 per day two years earlier — a rise of almost 20 per cent.
That one-year hospitalization rate translates into more than 5,800 Canadians needing treatment.
The last decade has seen hospital admissions for opioid poisonings jump 53 per cent, with more than 40 per cent of that increase occurring in the last three years, CIHI found.
“I think what’s interesting is to look at this issue across the country,” said Brent Diverty, vice-president of programs at CIHI.
“We see when you look at hospitalizations that rates are higher in Western and Northern Canada. But the rates while lower in Eastern Canada are on the rise.”
Adults aged 45 to 64 and seniors 65 and older had the highest rates of hospital admissions for opioid toxicity over the last 10 years, but the fastest-growing rate was for youth and young adults aged 15 to 24, CIHI found.
About half of those admissions were due to accidental opioid poisonings; about one-third were intentional; and the cause of the remainder are unknown.
“With seniors, you seem to see higher rates of accidental poisonings, perhaps related to multiple medications that they may be on,” said Diverty. “So they simply take the wrong dose.
“We see higher rates of intentional self-harm in younger folks.”
CIHI found intentional opioid overdoses were most prevalent among young people aged 15 to 24, accounting for 44 per cent of hospitalizations.
Still, the researchers also found escalating rates of accidental overdoses among younger people, which Diverty said may be linked to recreational use of illicit drugs, some of which may be laced with a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl.
“We have a supply that is completely unpredictable in terms of exactly what is included in what is being purchased and the quantity,” said Matthew Young, a senior research and policy analyst at the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse.
“It really comes down to how in the last few years, there’s just been this injection of these new compounds that are making the illicit opioid market incredibly volatile,” he said.
“And nobody really knows what they’re purchasing and what they’re using.”
In data from Alberta, CIHI found emergency department visits related to heroin and synthetic opioid overdoses soared almost 10-fold over the last five years.
In Ontario, emergency department visits for heroin poisoning rose almost four-fold, while visits for synthetic opioids more than doubled.
“They were seeing about 13 emergency department visits a day in Ontario, 11 in Alberta,” said Diverty. “But if you think about that in population terms (Ontario’s population is three times larger), we’ve got a more significant issue in Alberta.”
While CIHI doesn’t have a dollar figure for the cost to the health-care system, Diverty said people admitted for an opioid overdose spend longer than average in hospital and there are downstream costs for continuing treatment of complications.
“The simple fact that there are more of these cases occurring is creating more costs for the system,” he said.
“So it will be important for us to monitor these rates over the foreseeable future to see both how this issue is progressing across the country, but also how various types of interventions that are taking place may be helping to stem the tide.”