Overdoses are an all too common experience for drug users, and the biggest cause of drug-related deaths. But an overdose can be a wake up call for a drug user to seek treatment, if they survive it. Our health programme advisor Laura Everett-Coles explains how we hope to save lives with a new ‘take home’ medicine.
On the brink: Harm reduction coordinator Andrew Teale talks about drug users’ risk of overdose and how Naloxone could save lives
By Laura Everett-Coles
We all hope that the people we care about in life are safe and healthy. Sadly, that’s not always the case.
Unfortunately some people will end up facing issues with drugs, including opiates like heroin.
Imagine if someone you loved or cared for had taken a drug overdose and you found them unconscious and stopping breathing.
It may be your son or daughter, your mother or best friend. How would you feel watching them lose their fight for life right before your eyes? Not be able to do anything about it apart from call for an ambulance and then have to wait for it to arrive.
Imagine how long that waiting time would seem, even if they got to you quickly. I know if I was the person waiting, I’d be frightened, panicking and desperate to help them, but feel powerless to do so.
Now imagine the same situation but that you had a way to help revive them right there and then.
After calling an ambulance, you could give them an injection to help restore their breathing. This would reverse the effect of the overdose, most likely saving their life. After this you would put them in the recovery position and apply the techniques of basic life support you’d been taught to bring them round.
Even if you found someone you didn’t know unconscious and had no idea if they had overdosed or not, you could still apply the same techniques. And give the injection, safe in the knowledge that even if they were not suffering from an opiate overdose, it wouldn’t harm them. It would simply have no effect if they had not taken an opiate overdose.
Handing out a lifeline
We are funding a programme for a ‘take home’ injectable medicine called Naloxone. This medicine does exactly the above: it helps revive people who have overdosed on opiates, like heroin, if administered in time.
Changes in national legislation have turned the hope of ever having such a medicine available into a reality.
Naloxone will be available through specialist drug services to injecting drug users who may come across people who are overdosing. We will also make it available to carers and families of opiate users.
Community teams who often encounter overdose will carry the medicine too. This includes rough sleeper support teams and bail hostel staff.
When I first heard of Naloxone, I thought it sounded like it would be expensive. In fact, a five dose standard kit works out much cheaper than the price of a single insulin epi-pen provided to diabetics.
This saves a life for less cost than two cinema tickets.
Simple to use
Training to receive and hold a supply of Naloxone is quick and easy. We will provide training in life support and how to inject the medicine for everyone who takes a supply.
There is no need for any clinical ability or experience. You can inject Naloxone straight through clothing, even tough fabrics like jeans. The medicine comes in a pre-filled syringe with clear markings on the side to show the five doses it contains.
The person administering will give the Naloxone doses at two minute intervals until the casualty shows signs of regaining consciousness. After this they will go to hospital where clinicians will monitor them for a while. Emergency services will then take used kits and will safely dispose of them.
Preventing drug-related deaths
This medicine will help prevent drug-related deaths. There is the emotional tragedy of a lost life. But there are extensive costs associated with investigating drug-related deaths.
Drug-related deaths have been steadily increasing in the UK. But, in areas where Naloxone has been introduced, there have been positive results and it has saved lives.
Naloxone does not just have a clinical role to play. It empowers people to contribute to society by taking an active role in saving lives. It improves relationships between service users carrying it and the emergency services as they work together towards a common goal.
Wake up call
From my time working in the substance misuse area, I know that a near miss overdose is often a ‘wake-up’ call. It can motivate opiate users to seek recovery from addiction and turn their lives around.
People return to better health and become contributory members of their communities. Holding down jobs again, gaining educational qualifications and spending time with and looking after their families.
Naloxone will help to make sure people have that opportunity.
Who wouldn’t want to save a life and create that chance for someone?
Laura Everett-Coles is a health programme advisor at Public Health Dorset
*Naloxone will be available for injecting opiate users and their families and carers at the six EDP bases in Dorset, PACT and SMART in Poole, and Addaction in Bournemouth. More details about local drug treatment services.