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Health-based interventions can reduce overdose deaths

The Feb. 8 News article, “How to halt epidemic rise in heroin use,” discussed some important approaches to reducing overdose deaths in the United States, but failed to address several key actions that would significantly decrease the harms associated with opioid use.

We can reduce overdose deaths by expanding access to naloxone, a safe, non-narcotic drug that is easy to administer and reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. As long as the individual has a heartbeat, naloxone can restore associated respiration loss for up to 3 hours following an overdose. Naloxone should be made widely available to law enforcement, emergency responders, anyone who uses opiates, their friends and family members.

The article did not mention syringe exchanges. Injection drug use is associated with a high risk of infection by blood-borne diseases (e.g. HIV and hepatitis C). Syringe access programs help lower these risks by limiting syringe sharing and providing safe disposal of used syringes. These programs also provide access to drug treatment and social services. Despite the benefits, access to these programs remains limited. The United States must lift the ban on federal funding for syringe access programs and commit to launching new health programs across the nation.

Finally, buprenorphine heroin-assisted maintenance treatments must be made available. Conventional treatments do not work for many individuals who are addicted to opioids. For this reason, many cities in Europe and Canada offer treatment where pharmacological heroin is administered in a clinical setting, reducing both overdose deaths and drug-related crime.

The data show that the standard tactics of increased law enforcement and supply-side control efforts simply do not work. If we are to truly reduce the number of tragic overdose deaths, we must expand health-based interventions.

Erin George

Policy Fellow

Drug Policy Alliance