Nearly 17,000 hospitalizations for newborns related to opioid crisis, feds find in first-ever report

By Palak Mangat December 16, 2021

Updated national data and modelling shared by the Public Health Agency of Canada yesterday showed the opioid crisis could claim up to 2,000 lives every three months up to June 2022.

Released by the special advisory committee on opioid overdoses, a group co-chaired by chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam and her New Brunswick counterpart Dr. Jennifer Russell, the data shows 19 people died on average per day from drug poisonings from January to June 2021. Some 16 Canadians were hospitalized on a daily basis.

This year, 59 per cent of accidental opioid toxicity deaths involved a “stimulant,” according to the figures, which “underscores” the need for leaders to recognize that many users consume multiple drugs at one time, the pair said in a statement. (That can include cocaine and methamphetamines.)

“While harm reduction interventions are essential, we must not lose sight of the importance of the broader conditions that impact substance use,” they said, listing off the securing of “adequate and affordable housing for all” and the need to have “social connections” and reduce stigma and discrimination as among them.

“We are stressing the importance of continued collective efforts to prevent substance-related harms and help people who use drugs get needed supports.”

Wednesday’s release also came with the first report on neonatal abstinence syndrome in the country, highlighting symptoms that a newborn can experience when they are exposed to certain substances while still in the womb.

Public Health Agency of Canada opioid modelling.

Growing calls to decriminalize

The data looked at hospitalization among newborns between 2010 and 2020, with 1,755 cases recorded in 2020, a 73 per cent jump over the decade and a five per cent increase compared to 2019.

The dire update comes amid growing calls to decriminalize small possessions of drugs to help combat what experts frequently dub the “shadow pandemic” of the health crisis.

Federal officials are continuing to comb through a request from B.C. for an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, though Mental Health and Addictions Minister Carolyn Bennett has signalled her support for the move, calling it “a very good template” that could be applied to other Canadians jurisdictions.

Municipal leaders in Toronto and Montreal have also urged their peers to follow suit, as have the federal and Ontario associations for chiefs of police.

In a statement reacting to the figures yesterday, Bennett agreed the country is facing a “parallel pandemic” that is “shaped” by factors that can “be beyond an individual’s control,” including trauma, mental and physical health, colonization and income. “It is clear that solutions to the overdose crisis must consider broader health and social issues. It is clear that the goal is to save lives,” she added.

The minister vowed to tackle the “treatable health issue” of addiction and trumpeted “interventions in harm reduction” like naloxone kits, supervised consumption sites and safer supplies of drugs. “We need to do more. We will do more,” added the former physician.

Her statement also appeared to reference the Grits’ Bill C-5, which aims to pare back mandatory minimum penalties for some drug offences and gun-related crimes. The bill affords judges more discretion in the practise of doling out such sanctions, including factors like systemic discrimination and threats posed to public safety.

Police and prosecutors would need to consider “alternative” means to legal action, prompting them to direct substance users to treatment programs instead, under the bill. Bennett said it’s “critical” leaders “look at ways to divert” users from the justice system to the health-care regime instead.