N.B. reports record-high opioid deaths involving fentanyl in 2023

New Brunswick Public Health says 2023 was a record-breaking year for opioid overdoses involving fentanyl, with 2022 posting the second-highest total.

In its latest opioid-related harm surveillance report, Public Health says just over half of the 72 apparent opioid toxicity deaths were fentanyl-related.

That figure was lower in 2022, at 40 per cent, according to the report.

Public Health also says more "novel substances" have been detected in those who died.

That largely reflects what harm reduction experts across New Brunswick have told CBC News about the increasingly dangerous drug supply.

While naloxone use was also the highest to date in 2023, Public Health's latest report warns the take-home kits may not be enough to combat overdoses with these more toxic drugs.

Public Health's report acknowledges there are limitations to the data, which is collected through Ambulance New Brunswick, hospitals and the Chief Coroner's Office.

Debby Warren, Ensemble Greater Moncton's executive director, said the issue is larger than Public Health reports would suggest.

"It doesn't really capture the true extent of it," she said in an interview.

Debby Warren says Public Health reports do not capture the severity of the situation front-line workers are facing.
Debby Warren says Public Health reports do not capture the severity of the situation front-line workers are facing. (Zoom)

"So they're able to capture when there's ambulance New Brunswick called, and when someone passes and the coroner does an autopsy. But what about the 26-year-old lady who died from endocarditis infection? Or we had someone, a fifty-some year-old who ... passed away, because he developed cancer."

Warren said front-line workers and community members alike have become tired of seeing the issue continue to grow.

"The general public are just tired of seeing it. They're tired of seeing the bodies around, they're tired of seeing people who are homeless, using on the street. The first responders are exhausted from responding to all of these calls," she said.

"I think part of the exhaustion is, you don't see anything good in the future, you know ... is it going to get better?"

A fentanyl tablet, crushed.
Fentanyl-related deaths have stabilized nationally, according to Health Canada, but they remain on the rise in New Brunswick. (Radio-Canada)

Health Canada also recently updated its national figures on opioid-related harm.

According to the agency, 44,592 Canadians died of an opioid overdose between January 2016 and December 2023

While 82 per cent of opioid deaths in 2023 involved fentanyl, Health Canada says that number "appears to have stabilized in recent years."

In 2023, most accidental opioid deaths were recorded in males and those aged 30 to 39 years.

In New Brunswick last year, men and those aged in their 40s represented the majority of accidental opioid deaths.