The latest report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has revealed new statistics that could link the decrease in opioid-related overdose deaths to the increased use of naloxone, the powerful opioid-reversal drug.
While overdose deaths reached 70,000 in 2017, preliminary numbers for 2018 reached 68,000. This means that overdose deaths have decreased for the first time in nearly three decades, according to the July report from the CDC.
The CDC suggests that naloxone prescriptions have doubled between 2017 and 2018.
This past week, CDC officials also stated that while naloxone is saving lives, more work needs to be done to make the drug available in the case of an emergency—no matter where that emergency might occur.
First available in 1971 as an injection, naloxone, also known as Narcan, is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use by those who are experiencing an opioid overdose. Now available in a nasal spray, the drug works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, instead of allowing the opioids themselves to do so.
The effects of this can process can temporarily reverse and overdose when administered quickly. Easily administered in the form of the nasal spray, naloxone can be given by anyone, regardless of medical training to a person who is experiencing an opioid overdose.
Because the effects of naloxone are temporary, more than one dose may need to be administered to the person who is overdosing. It is critical that even after the person receives naloxone, that they be monitored and transported to an emergency medical facility.
As of today, 41 states have legalized the sale of naloxone without a prescription at CVS. In the case of Walgreens, 45 states plus the District of Columbia sell naloxone without a prescription.
Making naloxone accessible to the general public has been the source of a tremendous debate across the United States, though as the opioid crisis continues, CDC officials believe that education is still warranted surrounding naloxone and its necessity as this point in the epidemic.
In a CDC release, Director Dr. Robert Redfield said, “It is clear from the data that there is still much needed education around the important role naloxone plays in reducing overdose deaths. The time is now to ensure all individuals who are prescribed high-dose opioids also receive naloxone as a potential life-saving intervention.”
Due to the stigma of opioid addiction, the use of naloxone has been controversial, particularly after two researchers claimed that the availability of naloxone made people more likely to use opioids. Dozens of other studies have suggested the opposite since these claims came to light, as well as numerous public health officials who have stressed the importance of this critical, life-saving drug.
While naloxone is available in most places without a prescription, its availability in public places, such as schools, restaurants and bars, and parks, is still increasing. Airline giant Delta revealed that its planes will also now carry naloxone after a passenger suffered from an overdose on one of their flights and did not survive.
The incident was brought to airline officials’ attention via Twitter by a fellow passenger of that man’s flight. Delta later announced that naloxone would be made standard in its medical kits.
While positive progress is being made, the availability of naloxone alone is not enough. Although naloxone is a life-saving drug, its effects are temporary and in no way a treatment for addiction itself.
Proper medical treatment and specialized addiction treatment and therapies must also be available to those who are struggling with opioid misuse and abuse.
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