What’s Naloxone? And How Could It Help Save A Thousand Australian Lives Per Year?

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Imagine having the tools to reverse a drug overdose?

Well, that just became a reality with an overdose drug now being available for free at all pharmacies across Australia without a prescription.

What Is The Lifesaving Drug?

The lifesaving drug is called naloxone and is used to temporarily reverse the effects of an opioid overdose or bad reaction to prescription painkillers like codeine and morphine. And it can be used when drugs like cocaine are laced with opioids, which can happen sometimes without someone knowing.

Naloxone can either be injected into a muscle or delivered as a nasal spray. And it works to block opioid drugs from attaching themselves to the opioid receptors in the brain. It only lasts for 30 to 90 minutes, though, so it is still vital to call an ambulance after receiving it.

Quick History Of Naloxone

It was first discovered and patented in 1961, by scientists in New York trying to treat constipation caused by chronic opioid use. Researchers quickly discovered that it actually had the ability to block opioid receptors in the central nervous system. They found that the drug itself didn’t have any real worrying side effects, but that opioid users would wake up with withdrawal symptoms.

In 1971, the Food and Drug Administration approved naloxone.  By the 1990s, the first wave of the opioid crisis hit in the US and doctors were scrambling to find quicker ways to administer the drug and without patients needing to be in the hospital.

Queue the take-home kits, which according to the CDC reversed around 26,000 opioid overdoses in the US from 1996 to 2014.

But naloxone doesn’t have the breeziest of histories. Its lifespan sits against a backdrop of “activists, public health officials, law enforcement, and private medicine” coming to terms with opioids being used in “societies that are both deeply dependent and deeply ambivalent about them”. Even its predecessor nalorphine, the first narcotic antidote to be used clinically, was actually used to test for opioid dependence by police in California. And interestingly, the US still has a prescription-only status for naloxone while Canada only made it readily available without prescription in 2016.

Naloxone’s Journey To Australia

In Australia, take-home naloxone was first pitched in the early 1990s, and while other forms of harm reduction were implemented into national health care in the meantime, this idea didn’t become a reality until now.

A pilot of the ‘Take Home Naloxone’ program started in December 2019 in New South Wales, South Australia, and Western Australia. During the trial, it was used nearly 1700 times to reverse an overdose through injection and nasal spray formulations.

The Albanese Government announced in July that it was investing nearly $20 million over the next four years to roll out the program nationally. And would provide two free doses of the drug — also known as THN — alongside expert administration advice at pharmacies. Pharmacists say the announcement will remove the cost accessibility barrier to the drug — which usually retails for $40 per dose.

More than 1000 lives are lost every year from opioid-related deaths in Australia. National President of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia, Dr Fei Sim in a statement on the news said “Naloxone saves lives”. And that “during the pilot, three lives were saved each day, but with wider access we expect to see an even greater impact.”

She continued that “anyone taking opioids for pain management, or caring for someone who does, should collect naloxone from their local pharmacist”, and recommended for young people who use recreational drugs to carry naloxone on a night out.

Ultimately it’s exciting Australia has finally stepped up and liberated this life-saving drug, something that has become a “symbol of collective action for social change” and of solidarity.