Gap in overdose data ‘no surprise,’ advocate says

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A local harm reduction advocate says secrecy on the part of the province’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner may be behind a gap in Manitoba’s opioid death statistics noted in a national data release on substance use rates in Canada.

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A local harm reduction advocate says secrecy on the part of the province’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner may be behind a gap in Manitoba’s opioid death statistics noted in a national data release on substance use rates in Canada.

The latest federal report, Opioid- and Stimulant-related Harms in Canada, was released Wednesday and detailed increases in substance use, harms and deaths across most of the country from March 2016 to March 2022.

It noted a sharp increase in substance use, harms and deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, between April 2020 and March 2022.

For opioids overall, there were 30,843 deaths across Canada from January 2016 to March 2022. During the first two years of the pandemic, there was a 91 per cent increase in apparent opioid toxicity deaths, with 15,134 from April 2020 to March 2022 compared to 7,906 deaths between April 2018 and March 2020.

For the opioid deaths, there is a footnote pointing out Manitoba data from October 2021 to March 2022 was not available at the time of the study.

This didn’t shock Antoinette Gravelle-Ouellette, chair of Brandon and Area Overdose Awareness, because even she hasn’t been able to obtain accurate numbers from the province or the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Manitoba.

“There were no surprises for us because we have discussed these topics many times,” she said.

In previous comments, Gravelle-Ouellette said the pandemic caused many users to lose contact with regular dealers and drug supplies, forcing them to turn to unknown sources that were mixed with highly toxic substances, causing more deaths and harms.

The organization has undocumented toxic opioid drug supply death numbers for 2021 and 2022 coming from third-party sources. In 2021, they have an unofficial number of 407, she said. For January to March 2022, the number is 107; 32 in April; and 40 in May.

While those statistics are unofficial, she used them to calculate the number of people affected by those deaths, such as loved ones and family members. She estimates at least 10 people are indirectly harmed by each toxic drug supply death, so the harm this does to other people goes into the hundreds of thousands.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for Manitoba didn’t respond to requests for comment by press time.

While Gravelle-Ouellette said she understood the office must be sure the deaths it’s reporting are related to toxic drug supplies, she is still baffled by the secrecy, especially knowing the data is needed to help larger entities like the federal government keep track of drug use and harms.

The language used in the report and summaries was stigmatizing, she said, highlighting words and phrases such as “accidental poisonings.” She said she is pleased the federal government recognizes substance use harms and deaths as a crisis, but language like that makes it sound like it’s the user’s fault for their situation. It also steers the focus away from the main problem advocates have fought against for years — drug toxicity — she said.

Advocacy groups have asked all levels of government to look into regulating a safer drug supply to save lives.

“When we look at studies like this, the language they use doesn’t make it clear why this is happening,” she said. “When language is being used like that, it’s not getting to the point that we need to do something about the toxic drug supply.”

Now that the federal government has acknowledged a crisis, she said, she wonders what is going to be done about the issue. There has been progress in Manitoba with harm reduction and advocacy, she said, as well as talks for a sobering site in Brandon. But she said that advocates, agencies and even the family and loved ones of users and those who died want a national discussion on decriminalization of many substances.

This study doesn’t touch on that, she noted.

Other variables have to be addressed to allow a discussion about safe supply and decriminalization, the biggest being stigma, she said.

“This is about saving lives, and how can we do that if we keep looking at this as a legal issue when it’s a health issue.”

In a statement attached to the study, Carolyn Bennett, federal minister for mental health and addictions, acknowledged the reported harms and deaths are being caused by an illegal toxic drug supply and stigma related to substance use.

The federal government has been combating substance use and stigma through several initiatives and projects, including funding for community organizations, supervised consumption sites, safer supply projects, public education campaigns, and increased access to evidence-based treatment and life-saving services.

More on the initiatives can be found at https://bit.ly/3SHE0IR.

The entire Opioid- and Stimulant-related Harms in Canada data release can be found at https://bit.ly/3UQ0V6F.

» kmckinley@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @karenleighmcki1

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