As heroin death toll rises, antidote is available — but hard to find
Heroin-overdose deaths are rising in the Northwest, and a prescription opiate antidote was made legal in 2010. Unfortunately, authorities say, almost no pharmacies stock it.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seven people have died of heroin overdoses in Cowlitz County in the past week. Last month, the same number died over a three-day span in King County after overdosing on a combination of heroin and other drugs.
Year over year, the numbers are up in King County — 66 heroin deaths in 2011 compared with 50 in 2010. They're up in Oregon, too, where statewide 143 people died from heroin overdose in 2011, compared with 90 in 2010. Washington does not keep statewide statistics on drug overdoses.
Heroin is available, potent and cheap, "$10 a hit," says Dr. Karen Gunson, Oregon's state medical examiner. "I think that we're seeing just a huge influx."
In the face of the rising death toll, the state of Washington in 2010 made the lifesaving opiate antidote Naloxone available by prescription. The drug, also known by several brand names, has long been used by paramedics and emergency-room doctors to pull overdose victims back from the brink of death.
It's legal, but it's not widely available, said Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist at the University of Washington's Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
"It's an issue of needing enough demand. People don't know to ask for it," he said.
Banta-Green is part of a push by academics and doctors to get Naloxone into pharmacies across the state.
In January, he and representatives from Public Health — Seattle & King County, the state Department of Health and the UW School of Medicine met with the state Board of Pharmacy to discuss the merits of making the drug more widely available.
Jenny Arnold, director of pharmacy-practice development at the Washington State Pharmacy Association, said in an email Thursday the group is "exploring ways that pharmacies and pharmacists can help to prevent opiate overdose deaths, including possibly stocking inhaled or injectable take-home Naloxone for the quick reversal of opiate overdose."
Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson, president of the Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners, said that after all the deaths his county has seen during the past week, he's planning to talk with his colleagues across the state about heroin abuse.
The deaths of four men and three women in Cowlitz County can be ascribed to a potent "hot shot" of heroin, Davidson thinks, though he is still waiting for results from the State Patrol Crime Lab on the drug's purity. The people who died went into immediate respiratory failure after injecting the drug — a key indicator of its potency, Davidson said.
Death likely occurred within seconds, he said. "They're dying with the needle still in their arm."
Banta-Green thinks it's necessary that people seeking a Naloxone prescription be educated on how to use the drug and how to handle overdose situations. It is not a narcotic and cannot be used for getting high, he quickly added.
"All it does is block the impact of opiates," he said.
Usually dispensed in a small vial with a syringe or as a nasal spray, the drug can be used to reverse the effects of morphine, codeine, OxyContin, methadone and Vicodin, as well as heroin. It generally takes about five minutes for the drug to work, according to stopoverdose.org, the website run by the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.
Seattle social worker Lara Okoloko, who works with the parents of addicts, said that having Naloxone on hand would help many of her clients feel empowered. She said they have children who are still using and refuse treatment.
Okoloko, who is on the board at the Science and Management of Addictions Foundation in Seattle, said most of the parents she talks to don't even know that Naloxone could be available at a pharmacy.
"Their interest is piqued when I talk about it," she said.
"The parents I work with are motivated to be in their son or daughter's life and hopeful recovery," she said. "This would be one more tool for them to keep their kids safe."
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.