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Ontario launches online tool making opioid data public

Last Updated May 24, 2017 at 5:51 pm EST

Prescription pills containing oxycodone and acetaminophen are pictured in this photo on June 20, 2012. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graeme Roy

A new website that makes opioid data in Ontario available to the public shows a steady increase in related overdose deaths in the province over the past 14 years, with an 11-per-cent jump in the first half of 2016.

The site launched by the government Wednesday shows 412 people died as a result of opioid overdoses in the first six months of 2016, compared with 371 during the same time period in 2015.

Previously, the most recent publicly reported data on opioid deaths in Ontario had been from 2015.

Health Minister Eric Hoskins said the latest statistics are “alarming,” and opioid overdose has become the third-leading cause of accidental death in the province. However, he said Ontario’s year-over-year increase is far less than British Columbia’s 80 per cent jump from 2015 to 2016.

“Here in Ontario, we have yet to see a similar spike,” he said.

The newly available statistics go back to 2003, when there was a rate of three opioid deaths per 100,000 Ontarians — a figure that gradually, but steadily increased to 5.3 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2015.

Chief Coroner Dirk Huyer said his office is still working through a backlog of cases, but will soon provide newer information for the website more quickly, with deaths expected to be accounted for on the online tracker within six months after they occur.

Hoskins acknowledged that other provinces, including B.C., release figures on fatal overdoses more quickly, but said they are generally suspected deaths, rather than confirmed cases, and Ontario has decided to only release information that has been confirmed.

Hospitals have also been required to report opioid overdose figures every month and when the government is confident those figures are accurate, they will be released as they become available, Hoskins said.

The website currently has hospital data until the first nine months of 2016, showing an average of 150 hospitalizations for opioid overdoses per month.

As of May 1, the coroner’s office has also been tracking whether drugs that have caused fatal overdoses are legal or illegal, but that information isn’t ready for public release, Huyer said.

Hoskins said that data will be “critically important” for the government in developing its policy and he expects it will show a mix, where people are legally prescribed opioids and supplement their addiction with illegal drugs.

“Often, there’s an overlap,” he said. “As we tease out the presence of licit or illicit drugs and are able to source it, it gives us advice for how to intervene.”