MONTPELIER -- The state Department of Health is preparing to launch a pilot program that will distribute an antidote for opium-based drug overdoses directly to addicts, their friends or family members.
The initial plan is to distribute the drug Naloxone, the generic form of the drug Narcan, to high-risk groups through a needle exchange program in White River Junction and through the Howard Center in Chittenden County, which already has an overdose prevention program, said Michael Leyden, the health department's deputy director for Emergency Medical Services.
"Whether you're overdosing on an opiate, whether it's Oxycontin or heroin, the effects are the same: That is respiratory depression. You don't breathe enough, and that's a pretty good way to die," Leyden said. "This medication will nearly instantly take away those untoward effects."
Police and public health officials have been warning for some time about a dramatic increase in the abuse of opium-based drugs in the state, especially heroin and the crime associated with it.
"We do have a surge in our caseloads of problems with fatalities and overall the sense of opiate addiction and abuse," Leyden said. "And so as part of comprehensive management, we're looking at it from top to bottom. Prevention is a great thing, but sometimes it makes sense to have extra security of this type of safety net as well."
Through the end of July there were 43 deaths associated with opium-based drugs; last year there were 54, and the year before there were 61, Leyden said.
Leyden said he viewed the program as an extension of current public health programs that encourage bystanders to administer cardio pulmonary resuscitation or drugs carried by people to counter allergic reactions.
The legislation allowing the distribution of Naloxone was passed by the Legislature this year. The law included provisions that make it possible for someone to seek help for someone who is overdosing without fear of prosecution, and there is a provision in the law that would allow Naloxone to be prescribed to someone other than the addict, such as the parent of an addict.
There will also be an educational component to teach people to recognize an overdose and to ensure they call for help, even after Naloxone has been administered, because it's possible the antidote could wear off before the effect of the underlying narcotic.
The drug would be administered with a nasal spray.
Leyden said he and others were working on the final details of the pilot project. More details will be released in the coming weeks.