Data on brain damage due to opioid use lacking

Jan 10, 2019

Canada is currently facing a serious opioid crisis, with over 9,000 opioid-related deaths having occurred between January 2016 and June 2018. However, no comprehensive statistics exist regarding individuals who have survived brain-damaging effects of opioids.

Canadian doctors are becoming concerned with the lack of data and statistics regarding individuals who are living with brain damage experienced as the result of opioid use or overdose. In an interview with CBC News, Dr. Adam Peets, a physician in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, said:

“It’s something that the whole health-care system needs to do a better job on… How can we adjust the way we do business without having the best data to help drive those decisions, like staffing or going to the government and saying, ‘Look how many patients are overdosing and having chronic brain injury. We need to do more primary prevention and secondary prevention or fund post-discharge rehab.'”

According to doctors, comprehensive data regarding victims of the opioid crisis is necessary in order to provide them with necessary care and resources.

Vancouver’s St. Paul’s Hospital will be one of the first hospitals in the Vancouver area to use a new electronic health records management system in 2019 in order to improve the collection of patients’ data. However, the obtained data will not be transmitted across the province, where several other systems are already in use.

According to a statement by Nicholas Gnidziejko, manager of clinical administrative databases operations for the Canadian Institute for Health Information, to CBC News, national data on brain damage associated with opioid use would require developing a set of standards to collect the data in a consistent and comprehensive way. However, no such system currently exists in any province.

All opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, are respiratory depressants – they interfere with the ability to breathe. Fentanyl is more potent than heroin, and 50-100 times more concentrated than morphine, and can be lethal in very small doses. The risk of fentanyl overdose is higher than with other opioids, since fentanyl is more potent and is often combined with other drugs.

Opioid overdose can cause long-term damage to the respiratory and cardiovascular systems, as well as brain damage and cognitive defects. During an opioid overdose the user’s breathing slows down dramatically or stops completely, cutting off oxygen supply to the brain. In turn, oxygen deprivation results in the death of brain cells, causing brain damage and sometimes, life-long cognitive disability.

According to Health Canada, fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances continue to be a major driver of this crisis. From January to June 2018, 72% of accidental apparent opioid-related deaths involved fentanyl or fentanyl analogues. Although the opioid crisis has affected every part of the country certain provinces, such as British Columbia and Alberta, have been more affected.