VANCOUVER — Federal Health Minister Jane Philpott says she's aiming to release statistics on overdose deaths in Canada but is frustrated with provinces and territories that haven't provided data in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis.
Philpott said Health Canada has been working with a special advisory committee that includes medical health officers and coroners from across the country as part of its plan to deal with an opioid epidemic that is believed to have killed hundreds of Canadians.
"Still, we have provinces that do not have data more recently than 2014 in terms of the number of overdoses. To me, that's frustrating," she said in an interview.
"I am hoping very soon to be able to release at least an estimate of the number of deaths that have been seen, for example, in 2016 in this country. But it's very difficult to address a problem that is not accurately measured. Many of the tools to do that lie within the hands of provinces and territories and I certainly hope that we'll see progress on that."
In British Columbia, the heart of the opioid overdose epidemic in Canada, 931 people fatally overdosed on illicit drugs last year. The BC Coroners Service said 227 people died from illicit drug use in January and February this year, with a 90 per cent increase in the number fentanyl-related fatalities compared with the same period in 2016.
Only B.C. and Alberta publicly report overdose deaths on a regular basis.
Police and health officials in Ontario have criticized the province for failing to report up-to-date statistics on opioid deaths. Earlier this month, the chief coroner announced Ontario would be overhauling the way it tracks and analyzes overdoses and other drug-related fatalities in an effort to provide speedier data.
The most recent statistics on opioid-related deaths in Ontario are from 2015.
Philpott said an increasing number of illicit overdoses demand an extraordinary response from every jurisdiction as use and abuse of fentanyl and the more potent opioid carfentanil spreads across Canada.
"We cannot be complacent and we need to get ahead of the problem," she said.
An August 2015 report by the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse said data collection on deaths involving fentanyl occurring in illicit substances "is essential to understanding this rapidly evolving situation."
"This data is important because anecdotal reports suggest that many fentanyl overdoses occurred in individuals who thought they were using heroin, oxycodone, cocaine or another substance, but mistakenly took fentanyl," the report said.
Regulatory changes to address the opioid crisis in Canada have included allowing provinces to establish supervised consumption sites where people can shoot up under supervision in case they overdose.
Exemptions have also been made for people to obtain the overdose antidote naloxone without a prescription, and Philpott recently announced a proposal to allow health officials to import prescription heroin in bulk during a public health emergency to treat addiction.
Philpott said Canadians are the second-highest consumers of opioids in the world after Americans.
The minister said one of the multiple causes of addiction among Canadians has been over-prescribing, and new guidelines to be issued next month are expected to educate doctors to recognize risks for addiction.
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Camille Bains, The Canadian Press