You’ve heard it in the news. You’ve heard parents, professionals and politicians saying it. But how does naloxone really save people’s lives? Is it really the magic-cure-all-drug it is made out to be?
In a sense, Naloxone really is a magical drug. It is extremely safe and has no potential for misuse. If administered in a situation where an opioid was not used, it would do no harm. If administered in a situation where an opioid was used, it would save that person’s life. The mechanism of how this happens is very straightforward. Naloxone blocks a person’s opioid receptors, and thus effectively reverses the life-threatening opioid effect of respiratory depression. The person begins breathing again and a life is saved. Simple and straightforward - that’s all there is to it right?
Not entirely. Naloxone has been used in Canada for over 40 years by all sorts of health care professionals in various settings, yet tragically, over that time there have been thousands of lives lost to opioid overdose. All the while, an extremely important group has been without naloxone –people who use/misuse drugs. This group is all too commonly stigmatized and ostracized by both society and healthcare. Equipping this marginalized group of people with the tools to reverse opioid overdose will save lives. These tools include knowing how to provide rescue breathing and calling 911. But, is that all there is to saving lives with naloxone?
Again, not entirely. Part of equipping people with take home naloxone kits is equipping them also with the skills and knowledge to prevent overdose from happening in the first place. Practical advice on what increases a person’s risk of overdose and what steps a person can take to avoid overdose goes much further. This advice goes beyond the usual cliché and often ineffective “just don’t do it” and gets into to reality of “when you do use, this is how you can be safer” and “what else can we help you with?”
When people who use drugs are equipped with all of these tools, they become empowered. Control is placed back into their hands. They no longer are victims of circumstance and instead become agents for positive change. I have seen this firsthand in the lives of many who have come into my office and have been trained in overdose prevention and naloxone.
So then, how does naloxone save lives? It saves lives by sending a very clear message to people who use drugs: your life is valuable and you matter.
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