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Life-Saving Drug to Reverse Overdoses Should Come Over the Counter

Government Should Remove Barriers to Widespread Naloxone Availability

Kendra Williams, 23, struggled with a heroin addiction since she was 15, but stopped after her son (pictured) was born. Her life was saved by naloxone after she overdosed. Kendra is training to be a nurse and volunteers with the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. Wilmington, North Caroline, 2017.  ©2017 Private
(New York, August 31, 2017) – The federal and state governments in the United States are not doing enough to ensure access to the life-saving medication naloxone to reverse opioid drug overdoses, Human Rights Watch said today in a question-and-answer document released on International Overdose Awareness Day.

Around 91 people die every day of overdoses involving opioids in the US. Data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) shows that in 2016, overdose deaths jumped by nearly 20 percent, to 59,000, compared to the year before. Naloxone is a safe, generic medication that can reverse a drug overdose involving opioids. It can be easily administered by lay people, but it must be given soon after the overdose.

“One of the easiest ways to stem the tide of overdose deaths would be for the federal and state governments to make it easier to get naloxone,” said Megan McLemore, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But in many states, restrictive laws and high prices put naloxone out of reach for the people who need it the most.”

The question-and-answer document identifies federal and state laws and policies that are keeping naloxone out of the hands of people most likely to witness accidental overdoses, denying them the ability to save lives. Human Rights Watch documented these policies in the April 2017 report,  “A Second Chance: Overdose Prevention, Naloxone and Human Rights in the United States.”

The Trump administration has said that addressing the opioid epidemic, including deaths from overdose, is a top priority. The federal Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis published an interim report endorsing increased access to naloxone and made several recommendations that would increase its availability, including requiring naloxone to be prescribed alongside high-risk opioids like some prescription painkillers.

But the commission’s report did not address the steadily increasing cost of naloxone nor acknowledge the importance of harm reduction programs, like syringe exchanges, to giving naloxone to people who use drugs. Moreover, the commission failed to endorse one step that could be a game changer in what it calls a “national emergency”: moving naloxone from a prescription to an over-the-counter medication.

“The tragedy is that most opioid overdose deaths are preventable,” said McLemore. “Naloxone is safe, effective, and easy to administer by lay people. If it were as easy to buy as Tylenol, many thousands of lives could be saved.”

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