Opioid overdoses claimed more than 3,200 lives in first nine months of 2018

An OPP officer displays bags containing fentanyl as Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on February 23, 2017. The Public Health Agency has released new data showing that than 3,200 Canadians died after apparent opioid-related overdoses between January and September of last year. The agency says the numbers mean more than 10,3000 Canadians died as a result of apparent opioid-related overdoses between January 2016 and September 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

OTTAWA - The Public Health Agency of Canada has released new data showing that 3,286 Canadians died after apparent opioid-related overdoses between January and September last year.

The data also indicates that fentanyl and other fentanyl-related substances continue to be a "major driver" of Canada's opioid crisis, with 73 per cent of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths in the nine-month span involving the potent painkilling drugs.

In comparison, the agency says there were 3,017 apparent opioid-related deaths in 2016 and 4,034 in 2017.

If the rate of deaths in first nine months of 2018 continued for the full year, the total would have been nearly 4,400.

The health agency said Wednesday the opioid crisis continues to affect the entire country but certain regions, including B.C., Alberta and Ontario, have been hit harder than others.

Apparent opioid-related deaths are counted through data provided by the provinces and territories from offices of chief coroners or medical examiners. Opioids can be hard to disentangle from other factors in a death, including different drugs and underlying illnesses, so the numbers take a long time to crunch and come with qualifiers.

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public-health officer, said Wednesday that the newly released figures serve as a "stark reminder" of the importance of maintaining and ramping up efforts to stop the epidemic.

"As we take the pain of these losses and the deeply concerning data to heart we must continue to strengthen our collaborative public-health response," she said in a statement.

The federal government recognizes there is no simple solution, said Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor.

"I'm extremely concerned with the amount of deaths," she said. "To me, these aren't just simple numbers. These are mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters and as a government we have to work collectively with our partners on the ground to make sure that we do all that we can to reverse the tide here."

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