Naloxone: The ‘Overdose Antidote’ Making A Difference In Minnesota

This fall will mark two years since the opioid antagonist naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, has been available in Minnesota pharmacies. The increased availability of the life-saving drug has made a difference.

Jason Varin“I’ve seen it in action,” said Assistant Professor Jason Varin. “It’s truly an amazing drug that often works in less than five minutes.”

Naloxone is a medication that blocks the effects of opioids, including respiratory depression, sedation and hypotension, and is used to treat an opioid overdose in an emergency situation.

To help combat the increasing number of deaths from opioid overdoses each year, Minnesota was one of about a dozen states to make the drug available to the public in September 2015.

Experts believe if naloxone was made available to more people other than just medical professionals — for example opioid users, their family and friends, and people who could witness an overdose — the number of opioid-related deaths would be reduced. This thought is supported by the Harm Reduction Coalition, which surveyed over 600 community-based opioid overdose prevention programs in 30 states and D.C. that provide naloxone kits to laypeople. The survey results indicated that nearly 27,000 overdose interventions occurred as a result of these take-home naloxone programs.

There currently isn’t data available pointing to exactly how many lives naloxone has saved since becoming more accessible in Minnesota, but Varin believes it has made an impact.

“On any given day at a major metro hospital such as Hennepin County Medical Center, it would not be unusual to cross paths with someone who has been treated and perhaps been saved with naloxone,” Varin said. “An estimated three million U.S. citizens are addicted to opioids, and two-thirds of those people are addicted to prescription opioid medications. It’s likely you know someone suffering from this addiction.”

Currently in Minnesota, pharmacies that dispense naloxone are able to do so through a collaborative agreement with a physician, similar to the process facilitating pharmacist-provided flu shots.

“It should be available to anyone who may need it,” Varin said.

Currently, the process can be time-consuming, so Varin suggests anyone, especially caregivers of at-risk individuals, should plan in advance to ensure naloxone is available to them.

“With this new generation of easier to get, quickacting, often more potent drugs, if you were to walk into your dad’s, your grandmother’s, or your child’s room and find them unconscious due to an overdose, they could be gone by the time the paramedics arrive. But if you had naloxone, it could make all the difference,” Varin said. “Having it in people’s hands will save lives.”

Mark SchneiderhanAssociate Professor Mark Schneiderhan agrees.

“There will always be a group of people that will negatively view naloxone, and worry that the increased availability of it will be thought of as an excuse or ‘permission’ to use, and abuse, opioids. But really, the intent of making naloxone more available should be about keeping people alive,” Schneiderhan said.

Yet as naloxone becomes more available, significant education is required so that the general public understands how and when to use it.

“There are patients taking opioids as prescribed and still needing naloxone administered,” said Spring Schermer, a recent pharmacy graduate working in the field. “When patients go into respiratory failure, naloxone makes a difference. This is important in a number of settings, including places like hospice.”

Schneiderhan has committed to including more information on naloxone in his courses, and hopes others will assist in the education efforts
around naloxone and its uses so it can benefit the most people.

“The lack of knowledge is providing barriers and preventing people from ultimately getting the help they need, and in some cases that help does come in the form of naloxone,” said Schneiderhan.

—Krystle Barbour