A powerful antidote that can reverse the potentially deadly effects of opiate drug overdoses — including those from prescription painkillers — has saved more than 10,000 lives in 15 years, but it’s still little-known and too hard to get, a new report shows.
Naloxone, a drug sold as Narcan, is so effective that it can revive virtually all victims of the ODs within minutes using a simple shot or, more easily, a nasal spray. It was first distributed through needle exchange programs in the mid-1990s to prevent deaths of injection heroin users.
Increasingly, though, naloxone is showing up in the medicine cabinets, kitchen cupboards and even the handbags of middle-class moms as some mainstream families find themselves grappling with escalating opiate addiction in their teens and young adults.
“I kept it right on the counter by the microwave,” said Linda Wohlen, a 65-year-old school secretary who lives near Brockton, Mass. She used a naloxone kit to revive her son Steven, now 28, from a heroin overdose nearly two years ago.
“I have it in my bedroom and I always have one in my pocketbook. It’s a terrible position for a parent to be in, but you are expecting them to use,” she said.
Wohlen and her husband, John, obtained the naloxone through Learn to Cope, a Massachusetts-based group for parents of teens and young adults addicted to opiates.
It’s one of 188 local sites run by 48 programs in 15 states and the District of Columbia. Since 1996, they’ve trained more than 53,000 people to save an addict’s life, said Eliza Wheeler, author of areport published last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We don’t believe that death should be a consequence of using drugs. Death doesn’t teach a lesson,” said Wheeler, manager of an overdose prevention project for the Harm Reduction Coalition in Oakland, Calif.
Having naloxone on hand can be an act of last resort, a final safety net for parents who’ve tried everything from threats and demands to jail and drug treatment, only to have their addicted children overdose.
“To me, it’s about parents wanting their children to survive,” Wheeler added.
About one in five U.S. high school students has misused prescription drugs, including painkillers, a 2009 government health study found, and some states, like Missouri, are reporting a renewed rise in heroin deaths among young people.
But most parents — like most people — have never heard of naloxone and have no idea where or how to get it, experts say.
“The light goes off when you’re talking to the parent of a kid who’s dealing with opiate addiction,” said Mark Kinzly, a trainer with the New York-based Harm Reduction Coalition and a former addict. “When they hear that there’s something out there that they could have access to, they’re all for it. It’s just like the parent of a child who’s allergic to bee stings.”
Unlike an EpiPen for allergies, however, naloxone suffers from both the stigma of its association with illicit drug use and from the lack of sustained funding for outreach to drug users, experts said.
“There’s an intangible truth that people care less about drug-addicted folks than other folks,” said Maya Doe-Simkins, a Chicago public health consultant and researcher who has focused on naloxone.
Slowly, though, distribution of naloxone is growing, along with the nation’s prescription painkiller epidemic, which has seen overdose deaths triple since 1990, according to the CDC. The number of programs distributing naloxone has climbed steadily from about 15 nationwide in 2005 to 48 in 2010, Wheeler’s data showed.
Overall, some 37,004 people died after drug overdoses in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, according to the CDC. About three-quarters of the deaths were attributed to prescription painkillers.
Although there are no firm figures, those drugs are starting to show up along with injection heroin in reported naloxone rescues in the San Francisco area, Wheeler said.
“Since around 2010, we have seen an increase in people reporting to us that they’ve used their naloxone to revive people who had taken opioid pills, either in combination with other drugs or alone,” said Wheeler, noting that the pills have included fentanyl, morphine and hydromorphone, among other opiates.