Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, offers laypeople the chance to save the life of a heroin user who has overdosed.

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Naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, offers laypeople the chance to save the life of a heroin user who has overdosed.

Efforts ease access to anti-overdose drug

By Melody Gutierrez

San Francisco Chronicle

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Slowly and trembling, she inserted the needle into a sponge and continued rescue breathing on the plastic mannequin.

 This could be her son.

One one-thousand.

These could be his cold lips.

Two one-thousand.

She squeezed the clear liquid into the sponge arm of the mannequin.

Three one-thousand.

Four one-thousand.

The constant worry that accompanies having a 25-year-old son addicted to heroin has taken a toll on the retired school teacher from a Sacramento suburb, who asked that her name not be used to protect her privacy.

“What causes kids to be addicts?” she asked between tears. “That racks my mind. How much more can a parent take?”

She leaves an addiction support group clutching what she came for – Narcan, a drug often referred to as the antidote to opiate overdoses. More commonly known by its generic name, naloxone, the injectable drug reverses the potentially fatal respiratory depression caused by overdosing on medicines such as morphine and oxycodone or illicit drugs such as heroin and cocaine.

Once only found in emergency rooms and a handful of community overdose prevention programs, naloxone is finding its way into more medicine cabinets as lawmakers, medical professionals and advocates push for increasing access to the life-saving drug.

“The emphasis is on making this drug more accessible,” California Assemblyman Richard Bloom said of a bill making its way through his chamber in the state’s legislature. “If we wait until they get to the emergency room, it may be too late.”

Overdose fatalities are the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, killing 38,000 people in 2010, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sixty percent of those deaths were from pharmaceutical drugs. For the past five years, more Americans between the ages of 25 and 64 died as a result of a drug overdose than in traffic accidents.

Advocates said overdose fatalities would be much greater if not for naloxone.

The CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report credited naloxone with successfully reversing 10,000 drug overdoses in 15 years.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged law enforcement agencies last month to train and equip officers with naloxone after calling the rise in overdose deaths from heroin and prescription pain killers an “urgent public health crisis.”

“The medication is remarkably effective,” said Gantt Galloway, a pharmacist and executive director of the New Leaf Treatment Center in Lafayette, Calif. “There are not a lot of medications that have specific antidotes, but opiates are effectively treated by this.”

Galloway began a monthly training two weeks ago for the public at his drug treatment center, where naloxone is distributed. Among the things taught is the importance of calling 911 during a suspected opiate overdose, even when naloxone is given, since the drug wears off after an hour and overdose symptoms can return.

The nonaddictive drug has no side effects when given to someone who isn’t suffering from an opiate overdose. It currently comes in an injectable syringe or nasal spray for $15 to $25, although some community groups such as Galloway’s provide it free or by donation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced last week that it approved another version of naloxone, which is administered through a small handheld auto-injector similar to an EpiPen – an injector that delivers a measured dose of epinephrine to treat someone having a severe allergic reaction. Called Enzio, the naloxone injector is designed to be easily used by laypeople who suspect an opioid overdose.

“Some people think this is enabling,” said Mardi Wally of Sacramento, who attended a training session last week at Harm Reduction Services so she could receive a prescription for naloxone. Her husband, she said, sometimes mixes pain medications with alcohol. She wants to be prepared in case the worst happens.

“I believe in helping people when you can and where you can,” Wally said.