Imagine the scene. You walk into a room to find your loved one unconscious on the floor, barely breathing. You know your loved one has been using prescription painkillers or heroin and believe s/he has accidently overdosed. His/her breathing is shallow. You call 911. The first responder arrives within minutes and quickly administers an injection. In at least 80% of cases that previously would have resulted in death, the victim is revived. This miracle drug is now on the market. It’s called Naloxone and it is used far too infrequently.
Providing opioid overdose education and naloxone to persons who use drugs and to persons who might be present at an opioid overdose can help reduce opioid overdose mortality, a rapidly growing public health concern.
Administered by needle or by nasal spray, Naloxone rapidly helps restore consciousness and breathing to an overdose victim.
For the past two decades, help for overdoses caused by heroin or other opioid drugs has been provided by many community based programs in 15 states. Service providers, drug users, family members and friends were taught how to respond to and recognize an overdose, and how to use Naloxone.
Since the first opioid overdose prevention program began distributing naloxone in 1996, the respondent programs reported training and distributing naloxone to 53,032 persons and receiving reports of 10,171 overdose reversals.
Given that an accidental overdose results in death once every nineteen minutes in the nation at this time, how many more lives could be saved if all first responders were given and trained how to use Naloxone? Even better, how many lives might be saved if family members of known opioid abusers had access to Naloxone?
According to NYU emergency physician Robert Hoffman, M.D.:
85% of nonintentional opioid overdoses occur in the presence of others, with a window of one to three hours where naloxone, if available, could be successfully administered.
A few states (California, Illinois, New Mexico, New York, and Washington) have recognized that police, social workers and laypersons can often be in positions to help those who most need it. They have passed laws and changed regulations to provide limited liability for prescribers who work with programs providing Naloxone. Washington, Connecticut, New Mexico, and New York have created Good Samaritan laws to encourage bystanders who witness an overdose to use Naloxone when available and then to call 911 without fear of arrest. More states are joining in to prevent unnecessary deaths.
Many programs complain of past problems obtaining Naloxone. The cost of keeping the drug available may prevent expanding needed programs in more communities.
Twenty-one (43.7%) responding programs reported problems obtaining naloxone in the "past few months" before the survey. The most frequently reported reasons for difficulties obtaining naloxone were the cost of naloxone relative to available funding and the inability of suppliers to fill orders.
Current and new programs are faced with future economic and supply chain difficulties. State and local governments are having budget problems, but the long term costs and consequences of not funding more community programs is a disservice to the public. First responders must have access to this lifesaving drug.
How many lives can be saved? How many people will have a chance to recover and lead productive lives if Naloxone is made more widely available? Action can be taken to help in the prevention of deaths by opioid overdose. Educate yourself and share this important information with others in your community. Find out if your local police and fire departments have Naloxone available. If you live with an opioid abuser, find out where you can get Naloxone in the event that your loved one overdoses. You may just save the life of someone you love.
Constance Scharff, PhD is the Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at the Cliffside Malibu treatment center. She is also coauthor with Richard Taite of the bestselling book, Ending Addiction for Good.