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Ontario deaths from opioid use rising: study

Deaths related to opioid use in Ontario doubled in a period from 13.7 deaths per million in 1991 to 27.2 deaths per million in 2004, according to a study led by physicians at St. Michael’s Hospital and the Institute for Clinical Evaluate Sciences (ICES) in Toronto.

Toronto, December 17, 2009

Ontario deaths from opioid use rising: study Dr. Irfan Dhalla

Opioids are among the most commonly prescribed medications in Canada. They are used to treat people with moderate-to-severe acute or chronic pain. The study found that prescriptions for oxycodone rose more than 850 per cent in the study period.

Researchers noted the increase was especially pronounced after OxyContin was added to the provincial drug plan in 2000. In the following five years, deaths related to opioids increased by 41 per cent, and deaths related to oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin) rose fivefold.

“Many doctors are aware that prescription opioids can have fatal side effects by depressing breathing and decreasing level of consciousness,” explains lead author Dr. Irfan Dhalla, a physician at St. Michael's Hospital. “But we suspect most will be surprised to learn just how many deaths occur each year in Ontario from prescription opioids.”

The researchers found that most opioid-related fatalities (54 per cent) were accidental. The manner of death was undetermined in 22 per cent of cases and deemed to be suicide in 24 per cent.

"Patients and doctors may not fully appreciate the potential danger of these drugs, particularly when they are taken in combination with other sedating drugs or alcohol," says the study's co-author Dr. David Juurlink, a senior scientist at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES) and a staff physician at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

The study’s authors recommend the creation of a real-time electronic database to better track drug use for safer use, and better education of the risks of opioid use.

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