Officials hope to expand use of overdose-reversing drug
SEATTLE - Seattle's opioid crisis is a complicated medical, political and emotional issue, but state leaders are attempting to tackle one of the most immediate concerns facing those on the front line of the fight: Keeping users alive during an overdose.
The Seattle Police Department implemented a nasal naloxone (also known Narcan) program in March 2016, training 60 bike officers to administer the drug to anyone they believed to be suffering from an opioid overdose. The program has been a modest success, with officers reviving 20 people thus far according to Officer Steve Redmond, and there are hopes the program can be expanded department wide.
Opioids like heroin, fentanyl and oxycodone account for six of 10 drug overdose deaths in America, according to the National Conference of State Legislators. From 2012-16, 995 people in King County died from opioid overdoses, according to the Washington State Department of Health.
At a summit discussing the state's opioid epidemic last week, experts made sure to emphasize that while naloxone isn't a silver bullet to combat opioid addiction, it can save lives -- at least in the short run.
"It's a great intervention," said Caleb Banta-Green of the University of Washington's School of Public Health. "But it's not a complete intervention."
The drugs generally kill by slowing the body's breathing, which can lead to a fatal heart arrhythmia. Naloxone attaches to the same brain receptors as opioids, usually restoring normal breathing within minutes. The effects can last for more than an hour, giving first responders valuable time to stabilize patients and get them to a hospital.
Seattle Fire Department Capt. Jonathan Larsen remembered encountering naloxone, which used to be administered by a fast-acting intravenous injection, for the first time after it was approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1971.
"We give the drug, in 30 seconds to a minute, the person opens their eyes, looks around like they've been thrown out of bed, tells us they don't use drugs, impugns our mothers and proceeds to throw up," Larsen said. "That's pretty cool. It's like going to a revival meeting."
In 2010 Washington made it legal for naloxone to be prescribed to anyone who might witness an opioid overdose. A 2015 law allowed prescriptions entities like police departments, homeless shelters or social service agencies. Good Samaritan laws protect anyone acting in good faith to reverse an overdose from prosecution for misdemeanor drug possession.
When administered with a nasal spray, the drug takes a little big longer to work, but the effects can be gentler for users. Despite the program's success so far, Redmond said there are cultural issues that need to be overcome for naloxone programs to be expanded, particularly among law-enforcement officers resistant to taking on duties typically reserved for paramedics.
Banta-Green cautioned that overdose-reversing drugs are only a small part of the conversation about how to treat opioid addiction, pointing out that naloxone reduces mortality rates among users by about 6 percent. Long-term treatment drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, on the other hand, can cut opioid death rates in half.
But discussing naloxone and other methods of combating addiction can be jumping-off points for larger conversations about the crisis, Banta-Green said, particularly when it comes to reducing the stigma attached to opioid use and finding effective treatment options.
"Naloxone is the great gateway drug for a conversation about addiction," he said.
Banta-Green, Redmond and Larsen were among the first-responders, medical workers, policymakers and community leaders in attendance last week during the Summit on Reducing Supply of Illegal Opioids in Washington at UW.
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