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In a landmark move, the World Health Organization, based in Geneva, has launched its first-ever Guidelines on the Community Management of Opioid Overdose in a bid to prevent needless drug-related deaths.
Each year drug use accounts for more than 150,000 deaths globally, with opioids responsible for a high proportion of fatal drug overdoses, according to the WHO.
The WHO Guidelines highlight how increased access to the opioid-reversal medicine naloxone could significantly reduce opioid overdose deaths, particularly in countries with limited access to essential health services for people who inject drugs.
Professor Paul Dietze, Head of Alcohol and other Drug Research at Burnet Institute, and a Chief Investigator for The Centre for Research Excellence into Injecting Drug Use (CREIDU) in Australia, was part of the WHO’s Guidelines Development Group.
Professor Dietze said the WHO Guidelines provide all countries with a reference point when developing effective opioid overdose prevention programs.
“Overdose remains a significant cause of deaths in Australia, with around one person dying every day as a result of injecting opioids such as heroin,” Professor Dietze said.
“A key message in the WHO Guidelines is that opioid overdose is both preventable and reversible if witnessed by others, as it is in most cases.
“Opioid overdose can be successfully treated by both applying resuscitation techniques and the timely administration of naloxone, currently a prescription only medicine already used by emergency doctors and ambulance officers, which is cheap and safe to use.
“In Australia, we have started take-home naloxone programs in most states and territories.
“The National Naloxone Reference Group brings together the organisations involved to share information on naloxone distribution and the associated training programs for drug users and their friends and family members who are likely to ever witness an opioid overdose.”
Research undertaken by CREIDU in association with member organisations such as Harm Reduction Victoria, shows that overdose response training can help to engage hard to reach drug users with service agencies.
Harm Reduction Victoria’s Executive Officer, Jenny Kelsall, said it’s vital to get naloxone into the hands of the people who need it most.
“We look forward to the day when every opiate user carries naloxone and regards it as an essential item in their tool kit,” said Ms Kelsall.
“We have already trained more than 300 people who inject drugs in the last 12 months - 34 reversals have already been reported. We know this is making a real difference”.
Professor Simon Lenton from the National Drug Research Institute at Curtin University said observational studies overseas show that there have been reductions in overdose deaths where naloxone programs have been implemented.
“There is evidence to show that areas with naloxone distribution programs in place have lower rates of fatal overdose,” Professor Lenton said.
Dr Ingrid van Beek, Director of the Kirketon Road Centre in Sydney’s Kings Cross, which initiated a take home naloxone program in 2012, said there is no downside to this program that saves people’s lives.
“Our biggest challenge is getting naloxone out there to everyone at risk of overdose,” Dr van Beek said.
“Naloxone needs to be readily available in all parts of the country to maximise its impact on overdose death rates.”