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Kids overdosing is a public health emergency, Canadian pediatricians say

An alarming number of kids and teens have been treated for drug overdoses across Canada, according to a new survey released on Wednesday.

An alarming number of kids and teens have been treated for drug overdoses across Canada, according to a new survey released on Wednesday.

The report by the 2022 Canadian Paediatric Surveillance Program compiled survey responses from more than 1,000 pediatricians across Canada about providing care related to “severe/life-threatening opioid, stimulant or sedative use” among 12-to 18-year-olds.

The survey responses suggested that stimulants were the most commonly reported cause of severe or life-threatening overdoses, followed by sedatives and opioids.

Drug overdoses among children and teens are a public health emergency in Canada, the report said.

“I think it is, from my perspective, of the highest urgency,” said Dr. Matthew Carwana, one of the principal investigators and a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

To illustrate the depth of the crisis, the report pointed to data from the BC Centre for Disease Control showing that fatal overdoses are the leading cause of death in children and teens between 10 and 18 years old in the province.

“”As a provider, I do see children as young as 10 and 11 that are using drugs in a way that puts them at risk of overdose,” said Carwana, who is also a pediatrician at BC Children’s Hospital and a substance use disorder researcher.

But the problem exists across the country, the survey showed, with pediatric specialists in all 10 provinces reporting treating overdoses.

The researchers were unable to get specific responses from pediatricians who primarily work in the territories, Carwana said, but noted that it’s an issue there too.

In fact, the picture painted by the survey of drug use in Canada is “probably just the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

That’s because it only included drug use that led to “severe or life-threatening” conditions, such as overdoses, that were treated by pediatricians.

The survey couldn’t capture drug episodes where youth didn’t seek care or were treated by someone other than a pediatrics specialist, he said.

The fact that 128 of the pediatricians surveyed reported caring for at least one case of “severe/life-threatening substance use” in the last two years shows the need “to increase pediatricians’ training and level of comfort in the identification and management of severe substance use presentations,” the report said.

Those 128 pediatricians reported seeing a total of at least 636 cases, it said.

“As pediatricians, historically we’re well-trained to manage a breadth of issues affecting zero to 18 year olds. But I think that substance use historically has really been seen as like an ‘adult’ health issue. And so it’s not something that’s really embedded in our training and our curricula,” Carwana said.

More research on drug use by kids and teens is urgently needed — and it’s critical that youth themselves are consulted in coming up with prevention and treatment solutions, he said.

It’s also critical to reduce the stigma around drug use, Carwana said.

“I hope that what people can see through some of this work is not perceiving these young people that use drugs as having some sort of moral failure, but (as) young people that are in a society that is creating conditions where they can experience harm through substance use,” he said.