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Narcan Study: Use of Drug Reduces Overdose Deaths
02/12/2014   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The measure vetoed last year by Gov. LePage was a so-called Good Samaritan bill that supporters say would have saved lives from accidental overdoses. Now that he's being asked to go a step further and make the lifesaving drug naloxone or Narcan more widely available to addicts, supporters are urging the governor to follow the lead of two other states: Massachusetts and New Jersey. Susan Sharon has more.

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A few months ago Massachusetts marked what health officials said was the 2,000th opiate overdose reversal using the nasal spray Narcan. That's 2,000 lives saved from overdose deaths, something that has plagued Massachusetts, Maine and other states for several years.

What turned the tide in Massachusetts was an overdose prevention pilot program administered by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health in 2008.

"We distributed naloxone rescue kits and provided opioid overdose education to people in the community," says Dr. Alexander Walley, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Medicine. Walley studied the results of the pilot in 19 communities with a high rate of overdose deaths.

"And so then what we did was we compared the communities where the program was implemented to communities where the program was not implemented," he says.

And what they found, Walley says, is that the communities that participated in the Narcan pilot had fewer overdoses than those that did not participate. In fact, the study found that overdose death rates were reduced by between 27 and 46 percent.

Since the publication of the study, Walley says Massachusetts has continued to expand access to Narcan rescue kits as well as overdose education, teaching people about the risks of overdose, how to recognize when someone's in trouble and how to respond.

"We've got over 20,000 people in Massachusetts who've been trained and equipped with a naloxone rescue kit to rescue their loved ones or people in the community," he says.

Walley says the kits cost less than $50 apiece, and in Massachusetts, the Department of Public Health pays for their distribution. Without Narcan, addiction specialist Dr. Mark Publicker of the Mercy Recovery Center in Westbrook, says surviving an overdose becomes more difficult.

"If addicts are using together and one of them goes down overdosing, the others typically fearing arrest will leave, don't feel safe in calling 911," he says.

And that's the realization that Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie recently had in reaching a compromise over expanding access to Narcan in his state. A former prosecutor, Christie orginally vetoed a Good Samaritan bill that would have offered people immunity from arrest if they called 911 to report a drug overdose, even if they'd also been using drugs.

But last Spring, after being persuaded by rocker Jon Bon Jovi and the parents of overdose victims, Christie changed his mind and signed the bill at a well-attended news conference.

"One, it encourages witnesses and victims of overdose to act without fear of arrest," Christie said. "Second, the bill now incorporates and embraces this administration's belief that we should also use any necessary life-saving measures, like opiate antedotes to reverse the effects of drugs like heroin, morphine or oxycontin."

Drs. Publicker and Walley say the use of Narcan in these cases is not different than using a defibrillator machine on someone who is having a heart attack.

A call to the governor's office seeking comment for this story was not returned by airtime.


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