February 11th, 2014
06:04 PM ET

Federal officials support use of naloxone

With heroin use up nearly 80% since 2007, the nation's "Drug Czar," Gil Kerlikowske, is highlighting the benefits of an old, but effective drug called naloxone which can reverse an overdose.

While heroin overdoses account for only a small part of the opioid overdose epidemic, they are a leading cause of death in the United States, killing 100 people every day, Kerlikowske said in a White House press conference Tuesday.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this problem," Kerlikowske said, pointing out several key things that help to reduce overdose numbers, including the use of naloxone.

Naloxone is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses from heroin and opioid prescription pain killers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.  Opioids bind to the receptors in the brain and spinal cord, causing the body to slow down until it stops breathing.  When an addict takes naloxone, it can reverse this process, freeing up the receptors.

"Naloxone has very few side effects and can be safely administered in many different settings, so there is some hope for its expanded use," said Kerlikowske.

During the news briefing, federal officials said they support the increased use of naloxone by law enforcement officials and pointed out a pilot program in Staten Island, New York, where one officer was able to reverse an overdose last month.

Naloxone has also been used in  so-called harm reduction groups.  Just this past week, two people in Atlanta, Georgia were saved by naloxone distributed by volunteers from  the Atlanta Harm Reduction Coalition, according to the group.

A recent article in the Journal of American Medical Association described the "Project Lazarus," a program in North Carolina that prescribes naloxone along with prescription drugs, so patients can give loved or friends this possible antidote to avoid and an opioid overdose.

Kerlikowske's office also pointed to efforts like drug take-back programs, safe prescription drug disposal, and behavioral therapies coupled with medications approved for the treatment of opiate dependence, like Suboxone.

According to the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), four out of five heroin users start by abusing prescription painkillers.

As Dr. Wilson Compton of the ONDCP explained, the increase in heroin abuse is related to the prescription drug abuse.

"Heroin is cheaper than prescription drugs and they make the switch for economic reasons," said Compton.

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