EDITORIAL: Narcan is just the first step
"Knowing how to use naloxone and keeping it within reach can save a life.”
Those are the words Surgeon General Jerome Adams chose in an advisory sent out last week, the first advisory from a surgeon general since 2005.
Previous surgeon generals have warned about tobacco use, offered information on AIDS and, 13 years ago, urged pregnant women not to drink alcohol.
But in the days of the opioid epidemic, Adams spoke up about having the power to save someone else.
On Wednesday, April 4, Adams urged anyone who uses opioid prescription drugs legally or illegally, anyone who uses heroin or one of the many other illegal opioids available, health care practitioners, anyone with family or friends who use opioids and anyone who lives in a community where opioid use is prevalent to get the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, know how to use it and be able and willing to use it at any time.
So basically, everyone in the country.
In York County, police officers, ambulance crews and fire crews now carry doses of Narcan. Schools have it available. Anyone in Pennsylvania can buy it at a pharmacy thanks to a standing statewide prescription.
And yet the deaths keep mounting.
York County has been hit hard in the opioid epidemic. Coroner Pam Gay issued a warning last month after her office recorded 12 overdose deaths in nine days, six of them in one 48-hour period.
“There is absolutely NO GOOD BATCH of heroin/fentanyl — ANY AMOUNT, NO MATTER HOW LARGE OR SMALL, CAN AND WILL KILL THE USER, NO MATTER THE SUPPOSED TOLERANCE OF THE USER,” a release from Gay's office states.
Last year, 162 people in York County died from drug overdoses, more than the 123 overdose deaths in 2016 and the 95 in 2015.
Each death is someone who potentially could have been saved with naloxone; paradoxically, each death is possibly someone who had already been saved by naloxone, possibly several times.
First responders know when they go to certain addresses that they are likely to find someone who is overdosing and needs naloxone to be able to breathe again.
Naloxone, also known as Narcan, helps immediately. Overdose victims start to breathe again, a death is avoided.
But that's just the first step.
Addiction is a disease — and people who overdose have that disease. Making sure they don't die that day is a crucial first step, but it is only one step.
The opioid epidemic is overwhelming medical facilities around the country. Waiting lists for rehab stretch on for months — and rehab is more often than not unsuccessful the first time.
We have to stop treating naloxone as a treatment for the disease of addiction and see it as the stopgap it really is.
A person with a peanut allergy keeps an Epipen around, just in case they accidentally come in contact with a substance to which they're allergic. But they also avoid that substance and everyone around them knows they have to avoid it.
Naloxone is exactly the same. Police, firefighters, schools, everyday people can and should keep it around just in case it's needed. But what we really need to focus on is stopping the cycle of addiction.
Until we have a clear path for addicts to get into treatment and come out ready to stay clean for the rest of their lives, all the naloxone in the world won't stop the epidemic.