Calgary

Alberta's drop in opioid-related deaths shows recovery-oriented policy working, expert says

According to the province, 98 people died from an opioid-related overdose in June, marking several months of a steady decline in the number of Alberta fatalities.

98 Albertans died in June, a 44% drop after opioid deaths peaked last November

Opioid-related deaths in Alberta have been steadily declining since last fall. (Billion Photos/Shutterstock)

The province's latest opioid-tracking data shows a continued downward trend in the number of opioid-related deaths in Alberta between last November and June, which the government attributes to a successful recovery-related policy and an opioid expert calls reassuring.

According to the provincial government, 98 people in Alberta died from an opioid overdose in June, which marked a 20 per cent decrease over May — and a 44 per cent decrease compared to November, when the number of deaths peaked.

In June, 30 people fatally overdosed in Calgary, 42 people in Edmonton.

"I'm starting to see a pattern and I'm starting to see the numbers start to come down.… I'm again optimistic that we're on the right path to continue to help people with addictions issues," said Mike Ellis, associate minister of mental health and addictions.

June's provincewide figure follows a bumpy decline since November 2021, when there were 176 deaths attributed to opioids in the province.

'We just really tried to look outside the box while ramping up the system of treatment,' says Dr. Robert Tanguay, colead of the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine community program. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Experts believe there is no one reason why. But they say a combination of policy-driven decisions — including investments in more treatment spaces, better access to opioid agonist therapy treatments such as Sublocade, and an online opioid dependency program — have helped chip away at this complex problem.

"It really is about a system. It can't just be, 'let's evaluate one program and see if it's going to change everything for the whole population.' Every single program adds up to a significant reduction," said Dr. Robert Tanguay, colead of the Rapid Access Addiction Medicine community program, funded by Alberta Health Services. 

'Reassuring' to experts

The head of the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program (VODP), administered by AHS and based in Ponoka, says there is reason to be cautiously optimistic over this latest set of data.

"We're now into several months in a row where we're seeing that downward trend, and that's really, really reassuring," said Dr. Nathaniel Day, medical director of the program.

Day says he expects his colleagues and other front-line staff will appreciate seeing this emerging and positive trend.

"Nobody is celebrating that this is the end of the story, or 'mission accomplished,' or anything like that. That would be silly … (but) there are people out there who are living, breathing, with their families, who maybe wouldn't have been if not for all the significant effort that's being made," said Day.

Fentanyl is 40 times more potent than heroin and carfentanil is 100 times more potent than that. (U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah/The Associated Press)

Tanguay says it's about following the evidence. He says those who are in prison are at risk of overdosing once released because they have undergone detox and have lost their tolerance for the drug.

Now, he says, remand centres, jails and arrest processing units all have access to treatments for opioid addictions that can help prevent those potential deaths.

"Every addiction doc in this country has been banging that drum for the past decade. It's got to be access, access, access.… We just really tried to look outside the box while ramping up the system of treatment," said Tanguay.

Alberta vs B.C. policies

Ellis says that while British Columbia is focusing more on harm-reduction policies such as safe supply and drug decriminalization — while offering recovery and treatment programs — Alberta has not gone as far down that harm-reduction road.

"If we're doing a direct comparison, the supervised consumption sites are only one part of a very complex problem. And ensuring that we get folks into detox treatment and recovery and doing the hard work so that they can live happy, successful, healthy lives again — that's the hard part," said Ellis.

Yet looking at the published data, both provinces have seen declines in the number of deaths in recent months.

In B.C., 146 people died in June compared with a peak of 212 in January, which equates to a 31 per cent drop.

Mike Ellis, the associate minister of mental health and addictions, announces funding for Sublocade, an opioid agonist medication on Dec. 8, 2021. Also in attendance is Dr. Nathaniel Day, the medical director of the Virtual Opioid Dependency program. (Pool feed)

Day says the jury is still out on which will result in better outcomes down the road.

"We're not going to know for some time which of these strategies work and which ones don't work, and which ones work the best and so on," he said.

"And at the end of the day, we're also not talking about single, uniform populations of people, so different initiatives certainly are going to have an impact on different groups of people."

Regardless, he applauds both the B.C. and Alberta governments for publishing the data and hopes it will be studied more thoroughly by policy-makers.

"And say, you know what, we need more of this and less of that, or less of this and more of that … at the end of the day, we're going to learn some things from it and it's important."

Still, Ellis says the province's successes have garnered the attention of other jurisdictions, both inside and outside of Canada, as everyone looks for solutions to this crisis.

"They are looking objectively at the work that we are doing, and they themselves are noticing that we appear to be on the right track from a policy perspective — and you know, I'm very humbled by that. "


And for anyone struggling with an addiction, here are a few provincial resources:

  • Same-day access to opioid agonist therapy through the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program is available at VODP.ca.
  • The Digital Overdose Response System is a confidential, anonymous and professional system that provides people with addiction a lifeline to emergency medical services if they overdose at home. It can be downloaded by visiting DORSApp.ca.
  • RecoveryAccessAlberta.ca is a patient matching tool that helps Albertans easily find addiction treatment options.

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