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Health News Florida

Shot Can Rescue Heroin Overdose Victims

For more than 40 years, there’s been a drug that can stop a heroin overdose in its tracks, if someone gives the drug in time.  

And it turns out that the same drug works for patients who overdose on prescription painkillers such as morphine or OxyContin --drugs called opiods because they mimic the action of opium.

Patient advocates say many deaths from accidental overdoses of prescription painkillers or heroin could be averted simply and at little expense if there were wider distribution of a drug the drug called nalaxone,  or its better known brand name of Narcan.

Kelly Corredor of Jacksonville, patient-protection activist.
Credit Kelly Corredor
Kelly Corredor of Jacksonville, patient-protection activist.

They're spreading the message in Florida, given the enormous toll in the state from opiodpainkillers such asOxycontin, morphine, and codeine.

Last month they received support from the Florida Board of Medicine, and now a Republican lawmaker from Sarasota has filed a bill, HB 155, to promote the issue.

Listen to the radio story on naloxone that was broadcast on WUSF 89.7 FM on Thursday, Jan. 22.

Dr. Gary Reisfield, a University of Florida psychiatrist, says that prescription painkillers kill many times more people than heroin, although the street drug is making a comeback. Those who take opiods – whether legal or illegal -- should have naloxone on hand just in case, he says.

Naloxoneis an injectable drug that saves lives by reviving overdose victims at home before paramedics arrive. But that’s not happening, Dr.Reisfieldsays:

“Here in Florida, take-homenaloxoneis scarcely available," he says. "I believe it is medically appropriate to use it and we can put a big dent in our mortality related toopiodsif we make it more readily available. "

Dr.Reisfieldtook the issue to the Florida Board of Medicine  last month at the request of KellyCorredor. She runs a small advocacy group in Jacksonville, the Skeeterhawk Experiment, that’s committed to reducing the harm from prescription drugs.

“I'm actually a stay-at-home mom of twins," she said. "I used to practice law but I’ve been a mom for the last 3 years. This is a passion of mine, so this is my full-time gig right now.”

Step one, she says, is getting doctors to prescribenaloxoneto patients at risk.  Step two would allow doctors to prescribenaloxoneto someone other than the patient – say, a mother. Or a close friend. That would require legislative action.

Twenty-five states have taken that step, says DanielWermeling, a pharmacy professor from University of Kentucky brought in to the Board of Medicine meeting as an expert witness.  He says take-homenaloxoneis following the same path as that of a well-known antidote for severe allergic reactions, theEpi-Pen.   

A Florida House member from Sarasota, Rep. RayPilon, has  introduced a bill that would add Florida to the list of states authorizing take-homenaloxonefor use by Good Samaritans.  But the bill may run into skepticism like that expressed by  the chairman of the medical board, Dr.Nabilel-Sanadi.

“The only hesitation I have with allowing you to give prescriptions to lay people to giveNarcanto people, that may actually encourage patients to use narcotics because they have the antidote, or their family has the antidote,”el-Sanadisaid.

Not so, said ProfessorWermeling. For one thing,Naloxoneis not addictive, and for another, after it revives  overdose victims, they usually throw up.

“With regard to encouraging abuse, that’s actually been proven not to be true,"Wermelingsaid. "I’ll give an analogy for you to make it simple:  As garlic is to vampires,naloxoneis to addicts. It’s the worst experience you’ll have if you haveopiodsin your system.”

Several board members supported the idea of take-homenaloxone. They heard a report in October about growing numbers of young people overdosing on heroin or pain pills.

“ I would encourage that we as a board get the courage to put this through and make sure that all of our physicians do this," said Dr. Bernardo Fernandez. "Because I remember that presentation very clearly stated for all of us the disaster we’re facing today.”

The vote in support was unanimous. Dr.Reisfieldwill get his authorization in writing, and patient advocates likeCorredorwill try to get the word out to the medical community that it’s legal for doctors to prescribenaloxoneto patients who might be at risk of overdose.Corredor, who published a four-page background paper onnalaxone, says most doctors don’t know that.

"So it was important to come before the Board of Medicine to get that in writing, to get that reaffirmation in writing, to assure physicians to go ahead and start prescribing this on a take-home basis for patients who may be at risk," she said. "They could be saving lives that right now we are not reaching.”

Carol Gentry is a reporter forWUSF Public Media in Tampa. Health News Florida is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Shot Can Rescue Heroin Overdose Victims

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