New Report Shows Incredible Overdose-Reversing Medication Saved 10,000 Lives

It's not very often that people who work to prevent overdose deaths get excited about something truly groundbreaking. It's not often we get to point to something that could actually play a significant role in helping to end our country's rapidly escalating overdose crisis. But Thursday we did.

Thursday, the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR)  concluded that expanded access to a generic drug called naloxone could play a role in helping to reduce opioid overdose fatalities. The research, led by the Harm Reduction Coalition, reveals that over the past 15 years, an estimated 10,000 opiate overdoses have been successfully reversed with naloxone by people present at the scene of an overdose.

With all the media around the death of Whitney Houston, many people have been talking about the tragedy of accidental drug overdose and wishing for more proven, cost-effective ways to prevent it. While we won't know for a while what caused Houston's death, we do know, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that the type of drug most likely to be involved in a fatal drug overdose in the US is a prescription opioid painkiller, like oxycodone.

Naloxone hydrochloride (also called Narcan), is a generic, relatively inexpensive rescue medication. It does one thing and one thing only: it stops an opiate overdose in its tracks and helps to restore normal breathing and consciousness. It's usually administered as an injection by a bystander trained how to use it properly, similar to the "epi-pen" many people with severe allergies carry in case of emergency. It's also sometimes administered in the form of a nasal spray. It typically works within a couple of minutes.

Naloxone is essential at the scene of an overdose because it helps to buy time until paramedics arrive. It can revive someone who might otherwise have died while waiting those crucial minutes for the ambulance. Waiting for an ambulance may not seem like a significant factor to people who live in densely populated cities, but for people in rural communities, it can take a very long time for emergency medical help to arrive. In those situations particularly, access to naloxone can literally be the difference between life and death.

Administering naloxone at the scene of an overdose can save lives, but calling 911 is equally crucial. Those two things ideally should always happen within minutes of each other. Several states are now encouraging people to quickly summon help without fear of arrest by passing "911 Good Samaritan" laws. These laws help to reduce the minutes that can be wasted while people worry about the small amount of drugs in their pocket or whether the police will arrest their overdosing friend for being under the influence of drugs. States like New York, Illinois, Connecticut, New Mexico and Washington have led the way by passing this lifesaving law that provides limited immunity for arrest for low-level drug law violations when 911 is called to report an overdose.

The new report says, "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."

That's something those of us who work to prevent overdose deaths have known for a long time. But when the CDC puts its name on something, it takes on an extra level of significance.

CDC’s own recent data about the growing overdose crisis reveals the magnitude of the problem: In 2008, the most recent data year, more than 40,000 people died from a drug poisoning death. Nine out 10 of those deaths were due to drugs like heroin, hydrocodone and cocaine. The one type of drug involved most often in those deaths: prescription painkillers.

This is why the new research demonstrating the efficacy of naloxone used by trained laypeople to reverse those kinds of often-fatal overdoses is so important. We have a real opportunity here--for more research, more funding for naloxone distribution programs proven to work, to help get the word out to parents whose children might be at risk for a heroin or oxycodone overdose.

Would naloxone have saved Whitney Houston's life? Maybe not. It’s too early to say. We don’t know what drugs may have caused her death, or if anyone was with her between the times she allegedly consumed the drugs and the time she died. But naloxone has saved the lives of scores of people since it first became available in emergency rooms in the 1970s. It will quietly continue saving countless more every day in neighborhoods all across the country.

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