FEW DEATHS from heroin overdose happen alone. A friend or relative is often standing by helplessly as a victim’s skin turns blue, their pulse slows, and breathing stops. In 2008, 594 people died from accidental overdoses of heroin and other opioid drugs in Massachusetts.
That’s why a promising state pilot program that gets a life-saving overdose-reversal drug called naloxone into the hands of friends and relatives of opioid addicts should be expanded to more communities. At the same time, more first responders should carry the drug, often known by the brand name Narcan, and state and federal authorities should relax the restrictions preventing wider public access.
Since 2007, the naloxone pilot program at eight sites across the Commonwealth is credited with reversing more than 1,100 overdoses. The drug, which is squirted into the nose of overdose victims, revives them for 30 to 90 minutes, long enough to get them to an emergency room.
Naloxone is not a new drug, but had previously been confined mostly to hospitals. When the state’s program started, critics worried it would be difficult for non-professionals to administer naloxone - or worse, that providing it would be tantamount to official acceptance of drug abuse. But the results speak for themselves: In Lynn, one of the pilot sites, the number of reported deaths from accidental opioid overdose fell from 22 in 2006 to only 8 in 2008. In four years, according to state statistics, naloxone distributed in Lynn was used to reverse 166 overdoses. Statewide, the program cost only $170,000 this year.
The success of a program that relies on non-professionals - and of similar programs launched in other states over the last decade - ought to prod state and federal authorities to ease some of the needless restrictions on access to the drug, which is not addictive and has no potential for abuse itself. A bill introduced this year in the Massachusetts Senate would allow doctors to write prescriptions to friends or family members of addicts; it deserves the Legislature’s support. On the federal level, the Food and Drug Administration should study whether naloxone could safely be sold over the counter, as it is in Italy.
Meanwhile, as the results of naloxone programs become clear, grass-roots pressure is growing to find other ways to get more of the drug on the streets. Last year, for instance, a group of mothers of opioid addicts pushed Quincy police to carry naloxone, leading to 45 overdose reversals since June 2010. But few other first responders carry naloxone. This makes little sense. Opioid overdoses rank with car crashes as the leading causes of accidental death in the state. There is no reason why front-line public safety officers shouldn’t be fully equipped for them.
Even if more first responders carry naloxone, the reality is that the person squirting naloxone will often be a fellow drug user. Too often, though, fellow users fear arrest and don’t take the critical next step after administering the dose - calling 911. (After the effects of naloxone wear off, a person can go back into overdose if they don’t get help.) New Mexico, New York, and Washington have all passed good Samaritan bills that would protect people who call 911 to report drug overdoses; similar legislation has been introduced in both the Massachusetts House and Senate, and should be approved.
The families of addicts often carry a heavy load, boxed in by stigma and shame, and shadowed by the constant fear that a loved one could die with the next stronger-than-expected bag of heroin. Naloxone isn’t a miracle drug, and it doesn’t eliminate addiction. But greater access to naloxone would empower families, provide hope - and save lives.