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Manitoba heavily impacted by opioid-related deaths leading into pandemic: report

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A new study out of Ontario and posted in the Canadian Medical Association Journal is highlighting the significant increase in accidental opioid-related deaths in Canada leading into the COVID-19 pandemic, with Manitoba being one of the most impacted provinces in the country.

The research looked at opioid-related deaths between 2019 and 2021 in nine provinces and territories in Canada.

Across Canada, opioid-related deaths more than doubled from 2019 with 3,007, to 6,222 in 2021.

It also found the years of life lost per 100,000 people climbed from 3.5 years in 2019 to seven in 2021.

After dipping halfway through 2019, opioid-related deaths spiked dramatically through the first quarter of 2020 and spiked again in the third quarter of 2021.

People in their 20s and 30s were most impacted by opioid deaths as they represented 29.3 per cent of all deaths in people aged 20 to 29 and 29 per cent of all deaths for people between 30 and 39.

"The disproportionate loss of life in this demographic group highlights the critical need for targeted prevention efforts," the report said.

The data also showed men were much more likely to suffer an opioid-related death compared to women, with more than 4,500 deaths in 2021 compared to more than 1,600 women.

Manitoba one of the most impacted provinces by opioid-related deaths

Breaking down the provinces individually, the research found the Prairie provinces were impacted the most by opioid-related deaths.

Alberta and Saskatchewan both recorded fatality numbers that more than doubled between 2019 and 2021 – 619 deaths to 1,618 in Alberta and 109 to 322 deaths in Saskatchewan.

Meanwhile, Manitoba's opioid-related deaths spiked nearly five-fold by 2021. There were 54 deaths in the province in 2019 and by the end of 2021, there were 263.

"In Manitoba, 70 per cent of opioid toxicity deaths in 2019 had fentanyl or fentanyl analogues detected, increasing to 86 per cent in 2020," the report said.

Arlene Last-Kolb, a member of Moms Stop the Harm, lost her son Jessie to fentanyl drug poisoning in 2014.

She said the toxic drug supply is one of the main issues that needs to be addressed.

"We're losing a whole generation of young people like my son," Last-Kolb said. "It's going to take a lot more than safe spaces and more treatment to address the toxic drug supply, including opiates, fentanyl that we have on our streets."

Proportion of all-cause deaths attributable to opioids in Manitoba in 2021. (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

The years of life lost also jumped dramatically in Manitoba, going from 1.8 per 100,000 to 8.5 per 100,000 in 2021.

Those in the 30 to 39 age range were most impacted by opioid-related deaths in Manitoba. Almost 30 per cent of deaths in that age group were attributable to opioids.

Marion Willis, the founder and executive director of St. Boniface Street Links, called the numbers horrifying. She says something needs to be done as soon as possible.

"If that is not the strongest statement ever to support that we need a plan to address the drug crisis in this city, in this province - I don't know what it takes," said Willis.

She said plans for a new safe consumption site are a good first step, but agreed the drug supply also needs to be addressed.

"Safe consumption needs to include safer supply, or will we still have people using the same toxic drugs off the street."

Bernadette Smith, the minister of housing, addictions and homelessness, said the province has a number of items on its agenda to help deal with the problem.

"That's exactly what our government is doing. So supervised consumption site, drug testing machines, that's our first step – getting those up and running," said Smith.

However, Willis and Last-Kolb want to see action now.

"This is a challenge that is impacting all members of our human family. We're all losing our loved ones, you know, from the wealthiest families to the poorest families. This is affecting everybody," said Willis.

"It's frustrating to talk about things that are going to happen down the road when somebody dies here every single day," said Last-Kolb.

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