New Brunswick

N.B. opioid death toll hits highest mark since at least 2005

While the numbers suggest both fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses on the rise, the number of deaths is still drastically lower than in western Canada and Ontario.

Last year, 33 people died from accidental opioid-related overdoses, including eight people who took fentanyl

Fentanyl, pictured here in a handout photo from New Brunswick RCMP, was involved in at least seven deaths in New Brunswick in 2017. (RCMP)

Opioids were involved in at least 33 apparent accidental overdose deaths in 2017, a 27 per cent increase from the previous year, according to a new government report on opioid overdoses.

It's the highest yearly death toll from opioids dating back to at least 2005. CBC News has tracked the drugs involved in fatal overdoses going back to that year.

Seven of the people who died last year took fentanyl, eclipsing 2016's total of three fentanyl overdose deaths.

One person also died after taking carfentanil, a powerful opioid originally designed to sedate elephants.

And the death toll for 2017 may go up.

"Numbers are expected to increase as coroner investigations continue," the report says.

While the numbers suggest both fatal and non-fatal opioid overdoses on the rise, the number of deaths is still drastically lower than in western Canada and Ontario.

New Brunswick's 2017 opioid-related mortality rate is estimated to be 4.4 deaths per 100,000 people, up from 3.4 in 2016.

New Brunswick's 2017 rate for apparent opioid-related deaths is estimated at 4.4 per 100,000 people, lower than the national rate of 9.8 per 100,000. (Graeme Roy/Canadian Press)

The death rate is higher than provinces like Quebec, Saskatchewan and Prince Edward Island, but lower than Canada's national rate of 9.8 deaths per 100,000 people.

Opioids include drugs like fentanyl, Oxycontin, Dilaudid and morphine.

The 33 number covers both accidental overdoses and deaths where the person's intent hasn't yet been determined by the coroner.

Younger victims and illicit drugs

Between January and the end of September, Saint John recorded the most fatal opioid-related overdoses with nine deaths.

The numbers also show that more people are dying after taking illicit opioids rather than opioids prescribed by a doctor.

Last fall, the province's chief medical officer of health said the age of people overdosing is also trending younger.

"There's a shift in the demographic of who is overdosing, and within that demographic we are seeing a shift from non-illicit opioids, to illicit opioids," Dr. Jennifer Russell said.

With opioid overdoses declared a "crisis" on the national scale, the provincial government promised to spend $150,000 to buy about 2,500 naloxone kits for front-line addiction workers. The kits can reverse a life-threatening opioid overdose.

'We hope that we're saving more lives'

Many first responders, such as paramedics, already carry naloxone.

Ambulance New Brunswick has relaxed its policy around the drug, giving it to patients showing signs of overdose more often and administering higher doses. Naloxone only works on patients who have taken opioids.

Last year, 152 patients who were suspected to be overdosing responded to naloxone.

Ambulance New Brunswick paramedics carry naloxone and saw 152 patients respond to the drug last year. (CBC)

That's more than double the number of patients who responded to naloxone in 2016 (70) and significantly more than the 21 patients who responded to naloxone in 2012 — a 624 per cent increase over five years.

Paramedics are becoming more comfortable using naloxone, according to Brian Attfield, co-ordinator of clinical quality assurance with Ambulance New Brunswick.

"We hope that we're saving more lives," Attfield said.

He couldn't say whether the increase is tied to more people overdosing or more powerful drugs on the street.

All they know is that paramedics are using the drug more often, and more people seem to be responding.

The majority of the patients who responded to naloxone given by paramedics were in the Moncton or Saint John regions, followed by Bathurst.

Underreporting overdoses

At least 108 people were treated in hospitals for opioid overdoses between May and December.

Most (25 per cent) of those patients were between the ages of 20 and 29.

Last year marked the first full year where New Brunswick tracked overdoses in near-real time, collecting data from the chief coroner, Ambulance New Brunswick and hospital emergency rooms across the province.

It was supposed to allow public health officials and other people working with addicts to detect overdose trends faster.

Hospitals may be underreporting opioid overdoses, according to a government report. (CBC News file photo)

But it hasn't been entirely smooth.

Staff in hospitals are collecting information on overdoses by hand and everyone is collecting the information differently.

Because of that, the report cautions against using the data to look for trends or even to compare regions.

"Underreporting is also likely occurring in some hospitals," the report says.

No one from Horizon Health Network or Vitalité Health Network was available for an interview on Tuesday.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Karissa Donkin is a journalist in CBC's Atlantic investigative unit. Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Send your tips to NBInvestigates@CBC.ca.

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