‘EPIDEMIC’ ON OUR HANDS
Stark numbers highlight country’s opioid addiction
Ginette Petitpas Taylor, Federal Minister of Health, stopped by the Shepherds of Good Hope, where they offer treatment for substance use, in Ottawa yesterday.
New figures on opioid overdoses lay bare the scope of what Canada’s health minister on Thursday called a “serious epidemic” that’s sweeping the country.
Canadian Institute For Health Information data released Thursday revealed there were about 2,800 opioid-related deaths across Canada in 2016 — more than the number of Canadians who died at the height of the HIV epidemic in 1995.
“We face a serious epidemic, and the national picture shows that,” Ginette Petitpas Taylor said Thursday, responding to the new data after touring the Shepherds of Good Hope in the ByWard Market.
The opioid crisis is having a “significant” impact on the health care system, the institute said, with more opioid patients being seen in emergency departments, more being hospitalized and the lengths of stay growing longer.
Although figures haven’t yet been finalized, more than 600 people died of apparent opioid-related deaths across the country in the first three months of 2017, although the final number is likely higher.
On average, eight people die every day. About threequarters of these are male.
“We will most likely see 3,000 lives lost in 2017,” said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief Public Health officer.
Many overdoses involve other substances — 84 per cent involved a substance, such as cocaine or alcohol, that was not an opioid.
“The crisis is not limited to opioids,” said Petitpas Taylor. “This is important because it demonstrates the complexity of the problem.”
The area around the Shepherds of Good Hope at the corner of Murray Street and King Edward Avenue is the epicentre of the crisis in Ottawa. The Shepherds already has a “managed opioid program,” launched about a month ago, which offers hydromorphone, a prescription opioid, for clients. The program is aimed at preventing people from seeking street opioids, which may be laced with fentanyl. So far, there are about three participants.
The Shepherds does not have a safe injection site, where clients can consume drugs under medical supervision. It is among the locations listed under an Ottawa Inner City Health application for an exemption to offer a safe consumption services, but the exemption has not yet been granted.
And with the winter months ahead, there are concerns that opioid users in the Shepherds’ homeless population will be even more vulnerable.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Deidre Freiheit, the Shepherds’ executive director. “Our staff are absolutely fatigued. We’re seeing multiple overdoses every day. Staff are overwhelmed with the number of interventions just to keep people alive.”
Health Canada has granted an exemption that will pave the way for the city’s first supervised injection site to open in Sandy Hill. Ottawa Public Health announced earlier this week that it plans to open its own supervised injection site in the ByWard Market. But right now, the only place that Shepherds of Good Hope clients can to inject Ginette Petitpas Taylor, federal Health Minister drugs under supervision is an unauthorized “pop-up” site at Raphael Brunet Park in Lowertown.
However, most overdoses happen between 8 p.m. and 2 a.m., and the pop-up site closes at 9 p.m, said Freiheit.
“The pop-up is doing amazing work, but it is not lessening the burden here,” she said. “While we wait, we’re doing as best we can.”
Petitpas Taylor said she is placing an emphasis on removing the stigma from people who use drugs. Meanwhile, there is still a lot of work to be done, she said. Some $7.5 million in research funding was announced Thursday to study how to best integrate evidence-based interventions into practical settings.
“I really want people to know what we are committed to getting this right,” said Petitpas Taylor.
8: Average daily number of opioidrelated deaths in Canada
16: Average number of daily opioid poisonings resulting in hospitalization in Canada in 2016-2017
19 per cent: Increase compared to 2014-2015
53 per cent: Increase over the past decade
15 to 24: Age group with the fastest-growing rate of opioid poisoning hospitalization in the past decade
10x: Increase in emergency department visits for heroin poisoning over the past five years in Alberta
4x: Increase in Ontario
31 per cent: Proportion of self-inflicted harm, including suicide attempts, attributed to opioid poisoning in the past year