Doctor: Drug could be used to counteract overdoses

It was 9:23 a.m. on Feb. 1 when Tyrone police encountered a 31-year-old man on the floor of his apartment. He was unconscious, his lips were blue, and a few feet away on the kitchen table sat needles, spoons and empty heroin packets.

The man’s roommate found him and called for an ambulance.

Instead of becoming a statistic, 31-year-old’s life was saved thanks to a drug used by AMED personnel and area emergency rooms – naloxone, most commonly referred to by the brand-name under which it’s sold, Narcan.

Narcan binds to the opiate receptors in the brain, reversing the effects of heroin and other opiod prescription drugs, noted Dr. Matthew P. Bouchard, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UPMC Altoona. The No. 1 effect of an opiate overdose, and what kills, is a person’s breathing stops, Bouchard said.

The key is getting Narcan into the patient’s system before the damage to the body is irreversible, and getting Narcan into the hands of more people, not just EMS personnel and emergency room doctors, would likely save more lives, Bouchard said.

Judy Rosser, executive director of Blair Drug & Alcohol Partnerships, said that thanks to a recent state grant, the idea of equipping first responders, particularly police, with Narcan as well as having it prescribed to medical patients with opiate prescriptions are being explored by the organization.

Rosser, who also sits on the board of Operation Our Town, said the concept of putting Narcan in more hands is a new idea, and she pointed out it will take some changes in state law because Narcan, while not a controlled substance, is not something people can just buy over the counter in Pennsylvania. It can only be prescribed to a patient using opiates, but not a family member, and only certain medical professionals can administer it.

For non-medical first responders, a nasal spray form of the drug is available, Rosser noted, and unlike most drugs, there’s no danger in giving Narcan to someone, even if the person isn’t suffering from an opiate overdose.

On Tuesday, Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, sent out a Senate memo announcing she was planning to introduce legislation to address these hurdles.

There is “a lot of data out there suggesting it decreases overdose deaths,” Bouchard said.

Narcan is used several times a month at UPMC Altoona’s Emergency Room, Bouchard said, a lot of times with patients who have overdosed on a combination of medicines. Bouchard said there’s been an increase across the country in heroin and other opiate overdoses, most noticeably with the surfacing of Fentanyl-laced heroin in the Pittsburgh area that led to close to 22 deaths within a few day span last month.

“Overdoses won’t be prevented, but deaths are prevented,” Bouchard said.

Rosser said that in Pittsburgh, Narcan is given to opiate users as part of its needle exchange program, and so far, through tracking of Narcan’s distribution, it’s estimated 1,000 lives have been saved.

The cost of a dose of the antidote is between $15 and $20, according to UPMC Altoona, and it’s the cost that would have a great impact of whether Narcan kits will one day be in the patrol cars of the Altoona Police Department.

Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said with Act 47’s budget constraints and a plethora of competing priorities, adding Narcan isn’t something that seems feasible at the moment. Pratt said it is definitely something to consider in the future, depending on the cost and said he’s been amazed at how well the drug works to bring back opiate overdose victims.

“I’ve been on calls where someone is clinically dead. They’re injected, and they come out of it like nothing happened,” Pratt said.

Logan Township Police Chief Ron Heller said that although the township sees more alcohol-related overdoses, officers do deal with opiate overdoses and are often at the scene before paramedics.

“That would be something to look at,” Heller said, adding that cost would also be something to be considered in equipping officers with Narcan.

Bouchard noted that opiate overdoses don’t just happen to so-called junkies.

“It really is non-discriminatory,” Bouchard said. “It effects people across all social classes.”

Bouchard said while Narcan saves lives, data doesn’t show its availability in any way increases risky behavior among opiate users, as critics of making the antidote more widely available claim.

Rosser pointed out that heroin and prescription opiate abuse is already dangerous enough.

“They’re already in risky behavior,” Rosser said. “Every packet of heroin is a risk.”

Mirror Staff Writer Greg Bock is at 946-7458.