Burnet Institute Head of Alcohol and other Drug Research, Professor Paul Dietze teamed up with National Drug Research Institute Deputy Director, Professor Simon Lenton to write an explainer about naloxone for The Conversation. Below is an excerpt.
Naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, is a medicine that temporarily reverses the effects of opioid drugs such as heroin, morphine and oxycodone. If a person overdoses on an opioid, administering naloxone can help revive them.
Naloxone has been widely used in hospital emergency departments and many ambulance services since the 1970s. It has been shown to be remarkably safe, reliable and effective.
In most countries, including Australia, naloxone is only available in the community on prescription. But since the mid-1990s, clinicians and advocates have called for regulators to make naloxone more widely available to opioid users, their peers and family members who might be present or nearby when an overdose occurs.
Earlier this month Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) heeded this advice and recommended rescheduling naloxone to allow over-the-counter (OTC) purchase of single-use pre-filled syringes through pharmacies.
It is likely that from February 2016 Australia will become the second country (after Italy in 1995), to have naloxone formally available without a prescription.
Prescription take-home naloxone programs
Take-home naloxone programs involving supply through prescription have successfully operated in Australia since April 2012, when a program was launched in the Australian Capital Territory. This was soon followed by programs in New South Wales, Western Australia, Victoria and South Australia.
A recent evaluation found that over two years, the ACT program reversed 57 overdoses. The program trained more than 200 participants (mostly opioid users) in overdose-prevention and management, and naloxone administration.
A 2010 survey of naloxone programs operating in the United States since 1996 found that 53,000 kits containing naloxone were distributed through 188 programs across 16 US states. This distribution was reported to have resulted in over 10,000 successful overdose reversals.
Growing international research on implementation of take-home naloxone programs provides further evidence that people who are at risk for overdose and other bystanders are willing and able to be trained to prevent overdoses and administer naloxone.
Recent research shows that even very brief minimal training in using the medicine can be all that is needed to safely administer naloxone.
There is no evidence that wider availability of naloxone leads to riskier or more widespread drug use.
In 2014 the World Health Organization recommended that people likely to witness an overdose should have access to naloxone.