Deaths from accidental opioid overdoses in Alberta are up 40 per cent compared to last year, according to the latest statistics released Monday by the province.

In the first three quarters of 2017, from January until the end of September, there were 482 accidental overdose deaths related to opioid use. During the same time period last year, there were 346 such deaths.

The 2017 statistics show that, on average, 1.8 people die every day from opioid overdoses in Alberta.

Associate health minister Brandy Payne released the latest numbers at a news conference Monday, and said the province faces an enormous task in dealing with an overdose epidemic.

"It is a vast crisis," Payne told reporters. "In my opinion, the most important thing we can do is just keep doing what we're doing."

Steadily rising numbers over almost two years show that fentanyl overdoses are continuing to claim lives at an alarming rate. 

In the three-month period from July through September, there were 143 accidental overdose deaths related to fentanyl use — up 12 from the previous quarter and almost double the number from same three-month period in 2016.

An even more powerful opioid — called carfentanil — was detected in 126 overdose deaths in first nine months of 2017, compared with 29 death in all of 2016.

Other statistics released Monday about opioid-related deaths in the first nine months of 2017:

  • About 81 per cent of all fentanyl overdose deaths happened in Edmonton, Calgary, Grande Prairie, Fort McMurray, Red Deer, Medicine Hat or Lethbridge
  • 41 per cent of those who died from fentanyl overdoses sought medical treatment for substance abuse, mental health or pain in the 30 days prior to their deaths
  • 23 per cent had been dispensed opioids at a community pharmacy
  • 77 per cent of those who died from opioids other than fentanyl had sought services within 30 days prior to death
  • 66 per cent of those people had been dispensed opioids at a community pharmacy

Payne was asked about the drugs, chiefly fentanyl, that are pouring into the country from Mexico and China.

"When I speak to our partners in law enforcement, I hear time and again that we're not going to be able to enforce our way out of this problem," Payne said. "Ultimately we have to address the demand side for illicit drugs. And we're going to be able to do that by offering expansion for treatment, as well as offering those mental health supports that people need."

Payne said the province has expanded the number of drug treatment beds and has made the overdose antidote Naloxone widely available. The province is also working to open supervised drug consumption sites as quickly as possible.

Opioid Table 1

(Alberta Health Services)

Opioid Table 2

(Alberta Health Services)

"Clearly there's more work to be done," Payne said, "and we'll be having more to say about that in the coming weeks."

Tany Yao, the United Conservative Party MLA from Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said the rising numbers show the province's strategy to combat opioid abuse isn't working, and the government needs to be "more aggressive" on other fronts.

"We have the current strategy of promoting more needle injections, or self-injection, sites," Yao said. "I understand the concept of harm reduction, but (that strategy) hasn't really demonstrated any positives in Vancouver.

"Even with the physicians, as well, they've also had those stats that they continue to prescribe the highest here in Alberta," he said, referring to a report released last week by the Canadian Institute for Health Information. "We have to continue on with that education, hold these physicians accountable for giving out these long prescriptions."

 Alberta Liberal MLA David Swann said the latest quarterly number show the NDP government doesn't have a handle on the  crisis.

"A nine-per-cent increase in fentanyl overdose deaths from last quarter is unacceptable, and a 40-per-cent yearly increase is nothing short of a disaster," Swann said in a statement.

"Despite these troubling facts, the NDP fails to treat this with the urgency and importance it deserves, choosing, instead, to rely on a piecemeal, reactive response to this crisis."