Heroin, fentanyl deaths on the rise. Can a Narcan kit change the picture?

June 15, 2015

AKRON, Ohio ó Heroin and fentanyl overdoses are killing our kids, parents, friends and neighbors. Donít let anyone kid you; we are in the midst of a crisis. An epidemic.

Imagine finding your child or sweetheart unconscious, their breathing shallow, at best. Death seems near and there is nothing you can do. Or is there?

Some agencies and organizations are offering free kits containing naloxone, or Narcan, through a program known as Project Dawn. The medication can reverse an overdose that is caused by an opioid drug, like heroin or fentanyl. In this type of overdose, the brain receives a signal to stop breathing, which can lead to death. But Narcan can save lives.

The medication in the kits, which is administered through a nose spray, blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing.

While I continue to gather numbers, it appears that deaths from fentanyl, alone or mixed with another drug, have surpassed heroin deaths in our area. Fentanyl, a narcotic used to treat severe pain from things like cancer or extreme back pain, is remarkably strong, 20 times stronger than heroin, said Steve Perch, toxicologist for the Summit County Medical Examiner.

Itís no wonder that someone who thinks itís OK to use the same amount of fentanyl as they do heroin could be in grave danger. It also can kill someone who was abusing the drug, stopped and started again. Lack of tolerance can be deadly.

Itís natural to feel shy about walking into a place like Summit County Public Health to pick up a Narcan kit. But Yvette Edwards, project manager for Summitís Project Dawn, said the staff is pleased when someone asks for help.

"When I talk to people, I thank them," she said. "We are trying to create a welcoming environment because they are likely to spread the word" that the kits are available and will save lives.

Itís no secret, as Edwards noted, that addicts donít use in isolation. So, do your buddies a favor and get a kit. And donít be afraid to use it.

Dr. Douglas Smith, medical director for the Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services (ADM) Board, noted that naloxone is harmless if given to a person who is not experiencing an overdose. The medication has been used safely by emergency medical professionals for more than 40 years and has only one function, to reverse the effects of opioids on the brain and respiratory system.

Still, it does not reverse overdoses caused by non-opioid drugs like cocaine, methamphetamines or benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium.

When administering Narcan, itís imperative that you call 911 either right before or after using the spray. Thatís because, as Smith explained, Narcan is not a permanent fix.

"It works for about 30 minutes, which is why the user has to go to the emergency room," Smith said. "If they still have a lot in their system, 30 minutes later they may stop breathing again."

For those who donít have time to run out and get a kit today, please call 911 immediately if you witness an overdose. Emergency personnel carry naloxone. And forget the embarrassment factor. Itís a whole lot better to be shy when help arrives than it is to suffer guilt for the remainder of your life because you hesitated and let someone die.

I suspect by now some of you are thinking, "Why should anyone help these poor souls? They elected to use; they can face the consequences." But keep in mind, some become addicted while using pain medication following surgery or injury. And, regardless of the drug, Dr. Marguerite Erme, medical director for Summit County Public Health said, no one consciously sets out to become an addict.

"People, honestly, think they can handle it. They donít realize how quickly it (addiction) can come," said Erme. "When you give Narcan, you are treating a medical condition. The person has overdosed. They stopped breathing. They are possibly on their way to death."

Certainly, something on a national level needs to be done to stop drug producers from sending their poison here. For the time being, we need to spread the word about using Narcan.

Frankly, the Summit County coronerís office is far too busy with deaths related to drugs, heroin and fentanyl in particular. Recently, they received three bodies in one day, all victims of drugs.



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