On average, approximately 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose each and every day. For every 100,000 Americans who die, 13.3 die from overdosing on opioids. In Canada, this number is much lower. An estimated 4,000 Canadians lost their lives due to an opioid-related overdose in 2017. However, the numbers are unevenly distributed across the provinces. Opioid overdose deaths are increasing exponentially across North America.
While it is common to assume that the majority of those overdosing are overdosing on heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and illicitly manufactured fentanyl are significantly increasing the death toll. According to the CDC, approximately 50% of all opioid-related overdose deaths in the United States are attributable to synthetic opioids. In Canada, synthetic opioids accounted for the majority (72%) of opioid-related deaths during the first three quarters of 2017.
During an overdose, opiates overwhelm certain receptors in the brain. This interrupts a crucial part of the body’s impulse to breath and, as a result, breathing slows dangerously or even stops. If an overdose is not reversed quickly, the lack of oxygen leads to brain damage and, eventually, death.
Signs that someone is suffering from an opioid overdose may include one or more of the following symptoms:
Naloxone, most frequently sold under the brand name “Narcan,” is a medication used to block the effects of opioids, especially during an overdose. This medication is absolutely a lifesaving medication. When administered to someone suffering an overdose, naloxone quickly reverses the effects of an opioid overdose and restores the victim’s normal breathing pattern.
Naloxone comes in several forms, though the intra-muscular auto-injector and the intra-nasal spray are the most common. The intra-nasal spray is likely the best option for community groups due to ease of use. Each dose consists of an applicator with a piece that goes in the victim’s nose. The administrator then depresses part of the applicator and a mist of the medication is sprayed into the nose of the overdose victim. Instructions for use can be found on each package of the medication and should be followed by every administrator.
Importantly, naloxone is not a substitute for emergency medical care. Rather, it is meant to prevent death and restore breathing to an overdose victim while emergency medical professionals can be called. Naloxone is a safe and effective medication with no known serious side effects.
When administered to someone experiencing an opioid overdose, naloxone will immediately eject the opioids from receptors in the brain, causing withdrawal symptoms. If administered to someone not on opioids or not experiencing an overdose, naloxone is unlikely to have an effect or side effects.
Naloxone is now widely available without a prescription in most states. In fact, Hawaii and Wyoming are the only states where naloxone is not available over the counter. Walgreens and CVS pharmacies across the majority of the country provide easy access to this lifesaving medication.
Most essentially, we are supporters of harm reduction in all forms and we believe in creating safe communities for all. “All” absolutely includes drug users and overdose victims. Naloxone access makes communities significantly safer for drug users and can, potentially, save the lives of those overdosing. A belief in safe communities for all is indistinguishable from a belief in providing access to Naloxone for those who can most benefit, so we believe in the importance of naloxone access and distribution.
Our customers are community organizations and the effects of the opioid epidemic are ravaging communities across the country. We want our customers to be a safe place in their community with the ability to help those who are struggling and to save the lives of those who need it. Importantly, however, our customers know their community and they know what types of services are most appropriate for their community.
As we see it, there are three potential levels that our customers can engage to help increase access to naloxone for those who need it:
It is very important for our customers to consult with local legal counsel regarding any state specific laws that have bearing on this subject. While we are supporters of harm reduction in all forms, we don’t want our customers violating state law or doing anything that could jeopardize the safety of the organization.
Though not inexpensive, naloxone is a vital tool in a community organization’s harm reduction toolkit. If customers have difficulty affording this lifesaving medication, they can apply for Safety Grants from The Redwoods Group Foundation.