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Inside Ontario's Horrifying Opioid Overdose Epidemic

Between 2000 and 2013, there were almost 5,000 recorded deaths from opiate overdose in the Canadian province, and more than 300 in the last six months.
December 9, 2015, 5:15pm

Read more about naloxoneThere's been a nearly 500 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in the last two decades in Ontario. Photo via the 'Canadian Press'

A new statement from an Ontario nonprofit public health group is calling upon the government to take action in addressing the skyrocketing number of deaths from opioid-related overdoses in the province.

The Municipal Drug Strategy Coordinators Network of Ontario (MDSCNO) put out a press release Tuesday calling for the Ontario government to address the opioid crisis, effectively doubling down on the group's report back in June that found an opioid-related overdose death happens every 14 hours in Ontario.


The original report, called "Prescription for Life," cites the growing issue of addiction to opioid prescriptions and the deaths caused by them, noting that nearly 5,000 people died between 2000 and 2013 from an opioid-related overdose in Ontario. The new statement says that an estimated 328 Ontarians have died from opioid-related cause since the report was released just six months ago.

Michael Parkinson, a spokesperson for MSDCNO, told VICE that the lack of both a provincial and federal strategy on the opioid crisis is concerning and needs to be formulated quickly in order to curb the epidemic that has seen a 463 percent increase in deaths in the last 13 years.

"Policy change often starts at the ground level and not at the top, and it just hasn't hit anywhere near the top in Canada yet," he said.

"The key to resolving this crisis is a national strategy and provincial strategy, and we need to address this as a crisis, because that's exactly what it is."

Parkinson draws a comparison, one that's cited in the report, between how anaphylactic shock is treated compared to opioid overdose. Unlike EpiPens that have been long used to reverse anaphylaxis, naloxone—the opioid-antagonist drug that reverses opiate overdose—is not covered under most government drug plans.

Read more about naloxone

In Canada, the only way to access to naloxone is through emergency rooms when undergoing an overdose, needle exchange programs, and very select federal drug plans. Take-home programs—like the one Toronto Public Health's "The Works" provides—are few and far between, and Parkinson says that it's the main stumbling block in curbing the current death rate.


The MSDCNO's report proposes a number of initiatives to increasing naloxone access, such as funding naloxone access under veteran drug plans and providing hospitals the ability to easily prescribe patients naloxone when necessary. The report also notes that current laws surrounding how overdose emergency calls are responded to should be converted to "Good Samaritan Laws," which allow both witnesses and survivors of an overdose to contact emergency services without fear of prosecution for administering or being in possession of illicit substances.

Parkinson said that there's "no good explanation" as to why more hasn't been done on the front of providing naloxone opioid user in Canada, making note how the drug is not only incredibly cheap—roughly $12 per non-subsidized prescription—but that there are already several US states that have naloxone programs set up, with departments like the Office of National Drug Control Policy actively taking action on establishing new naloxone programs across that country.

Both Parkinson and the report cite the increasing number of prescription sales in Canada as a cause for the increase in overdoses. Last year, there was nearly 22 million opioid prescriptions doled out in Canada—up from just 17 million in 2010—and US studies have shown a correlation between the number of opioid prescribed and overdoses.

The Minister of Health did not respond to VICE's request for comment.

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