As Overdoses Spike In Mass., Demand For Narcan Rises

In this Feb. 27, 2012, file photo, Kathy Deady holds up a tube of Naloxone Hydrochloride, also known as Narcan, in her Quincy home. (Charles Krupa/AP)

In this Feb. 27, 2012, file photo, Kathy Deady holds up a tube of Naloxone Hydrochloride, also known as Narcan, in her Quincy home. (Charles Krupa/AP)

BOSTON — With a huge spike in opiate overdoses in Massachusetts and across the country, government agencies and health clinics are working to provide an anti-overdose drug to as many people as possible.

Health and safety officials are distributing Narcan, the nasal spray form of the drug, to first responders in many Massachusetts communities. It’s also available for addiction treatment centers and relatives of drug addicts.

Fire officials in several Massachusetts communities say overdose calls are increasingly common. In just a six-day stretch this month, the Revere Fire Department responded to 16 overdose calls. Revere is one of five communities participating in a state pilot program in which emergency responders nasally administer the drug naloxone, or Narcan, to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“It’s just incredible, it’s like magic,” said Michael Viviano, Revere’s deputy fire chief. “There’s somebody who’s on the ground, who’s literally dead. Sometimes they’re blue, sometimes they’re black. And you administer this stuff and sometimes in a minute or two or three they’re actually up and talking to you.”

Since Massachusetts began the pilot program seven years ago, there have been more than 2,500 reported overdose reversals. But overdose deaths continue.

Exact numbers are not available, but figures compiled by Massachusetts State Police show that in the past four months, at least 185 people in the state have died from heroin overdoses. That’s probably much lower than the actual number of overdose deaths, because the state police tally does not include either prescription drug overdoses or overdose numbers from the state’s three largest cities, where heroin is a known problem.

Dr. Alex Walley, medical director for the Massachusetts Narcan pilot program, says prescription drug users often switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get.

“What really happened in the last year is there is a realization that these are not two separate epidemics with prescription opioids and heroin users being different populations or different people,” Walley said. “What we’re seeing now is that the final common pathway for people who have opioid addiction is to use heroin.”  TWEET

In Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh is trying to get Narcan to anyone who wants it. He’s directed city health workers to offer Narcan training to police and fire officials and anyone interested.

Earlier this month at the first of five community Narcan training sessions, Boston Health Commission worker Berto Sanchez conducted a 45-minute training session. Most of it involved how to recognize an overdose. It took about two minutes to demonstrate how to put a small vial of liquid Narcan onto a nasal sprayer.

“The two yellow pieces on each end, they come right out,” Sanchez explained. “Just take that out, grab the atomizer, and put that on the other end. You’re ready to administer now.”

Auta Almida listened intently. She was there to get Narcan because a relative overdosed.

“I have [an] extended family [member] who actually has OD’d in the past year,” Almida said. “I want more information also to educate my family.”

At these sessions, Narcan is handed out free of charge. But the cost of the drug has increased. Seven years ago Massachusetts paid $22 for a Narcan kit. Today that kit costs $42. The Boston Public Health Commission’s Rita Nieves attributes that to demand.

“They doubled the price because they know what they have in their hands — a life-saving tool that everybody wants to use now,” Nieves said.

Only one pharmaceutical company manufactures Narcan in the dosage that’s used as a nasal spray. The company, Amphastar Pharmaceuticals, says it is not able to discuss its pricing history for competitive reasons.

The cost is one negative cited by Narcan critics. They also argue that Narcan encourages drug use by eliminating overdose fears.

But emergency workers like Revere Fire Capt. Jay Picarello say it’s their job to do whatever it takes to save lives.

“Someone loves that person who overdosed,” Picarello said. “It’s valuable for that reason. We’re bringing back a son back to a mother.”

Massachusetts U.S. Sen Edward Markey is promising to try to get help from the federal government so Narcan can be more widely distributed. It’s now used in 17 states.

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  • Joe

    I’m always amazed how people don’t connect the self medicating nature of pot use with the self medicating nature of heroin use.
    All the same thing. Drug abuse. Self medication for childish highs. No different than sniffing glue like a little kid.
    And on one hand we bemoan the spike in heroin, while on the other, invite the pot dealers into our towns to set up shop and billboards as if that will help society, and ignore the reality that the investment and marketing of self medication for highs will just increase use on all levels.

    • Jane

      Sigh… Joe.

      What’s crazy is to suggest that two states legalizing recreational use of Marijuana somehow has retroactive promotional effects on heroin use in states on the other side of the nation. Seriously, this is insane thinking.

      I hate to intrude on anyone’s own personal sense of righteous indignation, but it’s irrational to summarily dismiss the complexities of drug abuse with simple personal assertions that it’s “all the same thing.”

      But what’s really outrageous is taking any news – tragic news, hopeful news – and using it to deceptively augment religious, pseudo-moral or traditional belief that Marijuana is just plain old “bad.” Forget the studies, forget the comparisons with alcohol, forget the criminal consequences and the myriad of social ills which stem *purely* from the criminalization of drugs without any benefits – forget that this article has *nothing* to do with Marijuana – just take any random information and try to use it to buffet your opinions. It’s sad.

      If someone wants to get on their ignorant high-horse, why not take some shots at prescription drugs, which are obviously so much more closely related to the actual plague of heroin? Hydrocodone? Oxycodone? Codeine? Morphine? These are all pharmaceutical analogs of heroine, and they’re the real problems here – oh, and they’ve been here for decades.

      I’m sorry, but intelligent, evolving positions on marijuana aren’t the problem here. Attempting to turn every story into one’s personal platform to proselytize one’s agenda is harmful to society.

    • Argle_Bargle

      You’re amazed, Joe, because people have a clue about the subject and your views are far out of whack with both reality and public awareness. Only a weirdo would believe that cannabis has the same impact as heroin (or meth, for that matter, though the drug czar recently refused to address that comparison).

      And the concept of ‘self-medication’ is more of the pseudo-science for which you’re known. We have 18 of the United States where cannabis use, by definition, is not self-directed. It’s the law and will continue to be.

      Here’s a fun question: how loudly will your head explode when full legalization happens?

  • Fiji’s Best

    When we apply the term liberty to nations, we are referring to a people’s desire to determine their own way without the shackles of foreign control.

  • Phillip Wilson

    The liberty school recognizes that the quacks and superstitions which most threaten liberty become more widely accepted in times of crisis.

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