Opiate Overdose Drug Saving Lives in Santa Cruz
Narcan has reversed a dozen overdoses from heroin and other opiates in Santa Cruz, outreach workers say
- Read More:
by Mat Weir on Aug 14, 2012
Narcan can be administered by syringe or nasal spray, but it must be done soon after an overdose.
Over the past decade, in Santa Cruz and nationwide, the use of opiates has skyrocketed—and so have deaths resulting from opiate overdoses. While some of the increase can be attributed to the much-publicized resurgence of heroin use, it results primarily from a flood of prescription painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin.
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control shows that drug overdoses now account for more deaths than car accidents, and are now the leading cause of accidental death in the country.
While that fact might surprise the average reader, it is all too familiar to medical professionals and harm-reduction workers—as well as anyone who has lost a friend or family member to a drug overdose.
To deal with the fatal consequences of this epidemic, some California cities, including San Francisco and Los Angeles, have implemented their own drug-overdose prevention programs. Santa Cruz County recently implemented a program that’s managed by the non-profit Street Outreach Supporters (S.O.S), with help from Dr. Bill Morris of the Janus Clinic and the County Health Services Agency.
Begun as a response to the closing of the Drop-In Center downtown, S.O.S is an all-volunteer organization that for three years has operated a needle exchange. S.O.S. makes sterile syringes available as a way to help prevent the spread of disease (HIV and Hepatitis C are transmitted by the sharing of syringes) throughout the county as well as provide a sanitary place, instead of public trashcans, for users to dispose of their used syringes. And for the past 10 months, this diverse group of social caregivers has trained drug users and their friends and family members on the use of a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose and save the user’s life. This so-called “opiate antagonist” is naloxone, commonly known by its trade name, Narcan.
Here’s how it works. If someone shows signs of an opiate overdose (they are unresponsive, not breathing, turning blue), a shot of Narcan is administered by intramuscular injection or as a nasal spray. The drug travels to the brain and immediately blocks the opiate receptors, shocking the person out of respiratory failure and back to life. It is so effective that last year the San Francisco City Department of Public Health announced their 600th Narcan-related overdose reversal.
According to S.O.S. the antidote drug has already left a mark in Santa Cruz.
“Since we’ve started the program,” explains longtime volunteer Sarah Best, “there have been over two dozen overdose reversals by people we have trained.”
Naloxone must be used quickly—often there’s no time to wait for an ambulance—but it can be administered by anyone after a quick training session. Here and elsewhere, this training is given to drug users themselves, as well as their families. But only 10 cities in seven counties in California currently have Narcan-related drug prevention programs.
“It is essential that we continue to train people in the use of this life-saving treatment,” Best says.
The opiate antidote has been safely used by paramedics and emergency rooms for over 30 years. In 1996, Chicago became the first city in the nation to implement a Narcan program, and in 2007 the California State Senate passed SB 767 to permit the administration of Narcan by non-medical people in seven test counties. The Federal Drug Administration is currently debating how best to expand access. While opponents argue that overdose prevention does nothing to combat the use of drugs on the streets, supporters claim the bottom line is that easier access means more lives saved, and even the CDC estimates that 10,000 lives have been saved through the use of Narcan.
The SOS program started up with donated supplies (one Narcan rescue kit costs around $30) but now needs more donations to keep the program running. Clara Dudley, a longtime volunteer who is close with the program, explains. “We’re still receiving some free shipments of Narcan, enough to get by, but more and more suppliers are asking for a donation because of their overhead costs,” she says.
The people at Street Outreach Supporters will be throwing a fundraiser on Saturday, Aug. 18 to fill their Narcan coffers and are inviting anyone who wants to help this worthy cause. “People can come by and support something positive while enjoying a great time with friends,” says Best. “How can you go wrong?”
SOS FUNDRAISER with The Back-up Razor, Red Light District, Tether Horse and Shining Mountain
Saturday, Aug. 18, 5-10pm
The Church House, 436 Pennsylvania, Santa Cruz