New Act in Congress Would Help Combat Overdose Epidemic Killing Off Americans
For all the attention that violent crime gets in the media, the average American is much more likely to die from another largely preventable tragedy: drug overdose. Causing more than 28,000 deaths per year, drug overdose is now the number-one cause of accidental death for Americans aged 25 to 54. The Centers for Disease Control considers it a new epidemic. But we can change that. Last week in Congress, Rep. Donna F. Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) introduced the Stop Overdose Stat (SOS) Act to ramp up federal aid for lifesaving overdose prevention programs.
Overdoses from prescription medications used to treat pain like oxycodone have become increasingly commonplace. People overdose for a variety of reasons:
- A father of two severely injures his back on the job and his primary care physician prescribes one dose per day of an opioid pain medication. But he experiences significant pain and takes the second dose early -- a decision he did not realize was fatal.
- A stay-at-home mother of three is prescribed Percocet, but continues using the drug as a way of coping with the stressors of life. After deciding she wants to stop, she seeks treatment and abstains. Several months later, however, a traumatic event triggers her desire for more Percocet, and she takes the same dose she did before her period of abstinence. Her body doesn’t have the same tolerance to the drug.
- A couple is driving home from the detox center where their daughter has just been admitted for dependence to pain medicine. Even after their daughter’s withdrawal faded, they worry that she might relapse. Three months after their daughter returns home, her mother discovers her passed out on her bed. Her breathing is shallow, and her skin is ashen. She has relapsed and is overdosing.
Fortunately, there are highly effective, low-cost interventions that can help prevent overdoses from becoming fatal. Health officials in a growing number of places are empowering people to prevent fatal overdoses in their communities by training family members and law enforcement. Overdose prevention programs train people to recognize the symptoms of overdose and to properly administer first aid, including the opioid overdose-reverser naloxone. Naloxonegreatly reduces mortality from overdoses caused by oxycodone, heroin and other opioid drugs.
Trained individuals are more likely to know how to help a person survive an overdose. Take for example the woman who found her daughter unconscious from an overdose. Had she been trained to recognize and respond to overdose, the woman would have immediately called 911 and began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The excess pain medication suppresses breathing, and overdosers need oxygen fast. Had she known, the woman would have remembered the naloxone. In each nostril, she would have sprayed the naloxonethat was provided by the overdose prevention program. Within a couple minutes, her daughter would have woken up.
Recently, the American Medical Association declared its support for overdose prevention programs, and earlier this year the Food and Drug Administration held a workshop to discuss making naloxonemore available.
More than 180 overdose prevention programs across the U.S. have already saved more than 10,000 lives, according to a recent CDC report. In addition to saving lives, overdose prevention programs are also thought to reduce healthcare costs. Failure to secure medical intervention during an overdose can result in additional serious complications, including coma.
Unfortunately, many communities do not yet have these programs in place. Congress should quickly pass the SOS Act, and federal officials should swiftly expand access to naloxone.
On August 31, vigils will be held worldwide to mark Overdose Awareness Day, which provides parents, family members and others affected by an overdose a moment to unite and grieve the loss of a loved one. The pressure for government and health officials to bring an end to this epidemic will not cease until the tools to prevent deaths are in every community and being put to good use. The hundreds of thousands of friends and family members lost to overdose cannot be ignored.
Grant Smith is a federal policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance.