Opioid-related overdose deaths are drastically rising in Canada, with an estimated 4,000 people losing their lives to such drugs in 2017, new data from the Public Health Agency of Canada reveals.

“Unfortunately, the data released today have confirmed our fear that that the crisis has worsened significantly since 2016, despite the efforts from all levels of government and partners to reverse the trend,” a statement from the co-chairs of the Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses said Tuesday.      

According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, 2,923 people are believed to have died from opioid-related overdoses between Jan. and Sept. 2017 -- a 45 per cent increase over the same period the previous year. That death toll is just 23 less than all apparent opioid-related overdose deaths in 2016. Based on available data, public health officials estimate that there were more than 4,000 opioid-related fatalities in Canada in 2017.

The data also indicates that illegally-produced synthetic opioids like fentanyl accounted for 72 per cent of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths between Jan. and Sept. 2017, compared to 55 per cent in 2016. An estimated 92 per cent of apparent opioid-related deaths in the first three quarters of 2017 were accidental.

“We recognize that each death reported in today's release represents a human life, and we are saddened by these losses,” the committee co-chairs stated. “We recognize that all levels of government must do more to increase awareness, implement and evaluate innovative harm reduction approaches and increase access to effective treatment programs in order to turn the tide on this epidemic of opioid-related deaths.”

The Special Advisory Committee on the Epidemic of Opioid Overdoses was established in Dec. 2016 by the federal, provincial and territorial governments “to focus on urgent issues related to overdoses and deaths linked to the use of opioids.” Its co-chairs are Chief Public Health Officer of Canada Dr. Theresa Tam and Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang.

Here’s a chart showing a breakdown by age of accidental opioid-related deaths across Canada. Please note that data for Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island and Nunavut unavailable.

The new data also revealed that males account for a staggering 76 per cent of all accidental apparent opioid-related deaths, with people between 30 and 39 the most at-risk, accounting for 28 per cent of fatalities.

The Public Health Agency of Canada data also suggests that British Columbia has been the most hard-hit by the opioid epidemic, with 1,138 apparent opioid-related deaths logged in the first three quarters of 2017. The province is followed by Ontario (942 deaths) and Alberta (546 deaths). British Columbia also recorded the highest rate of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths in Canada in that same 2017 period, with 29.8 deaths per 100,000 people. It was followed by Alberta (16.2) and Yukon (13.9) -- the only other provinces or territories to sit above the national average of 9.8 apparent opioid-related deaths per 100,000 people.

Below are two charts for 2016 and 2017 showing the number of deaths per province or territory of opioid-related deaths. (If you’re using our app, touch here). Note that the figures for British Columbia include deaths related to all illicit drugs, and no data was available for Nunavut.