Deep in the heart of West Virginia, Cabell County residents are fighting for their lives. The opioid epidemic has ravaged the region. Huntington is one of the largest cities in the state, and it’s called the overdose capital of America. Because Huntington has ten times the overdose death rate as the national average, health professionals are feeling the squeeze as they try to combat opioid addiction.
In 2017, Netflix released the documentary Heroin(e) to highlight how the Cabell County community is trying to save residents from opioid overdoses. The film follows Jan Radar, the Huntington Fire Department Chief, as she distributes the anti-overdose drug naloxone from fire trucks and emergency response vehicles.
But what is naloxone, and is it a key tool in the fight against the opioid epidemic?
Naloxone helps reverse the effects of an overdose. The human body has many nerve cells, which send signals from your brain throughout your body. These cells are an important part of your nervous system because they help you sense touch. texture, and pain. Opioids attach to these nerve receptors, blocking or dulling pain.
West Virginians in Huntington may feel as though the odds are stacked against them in the battle against opioid addiction. In Heroin(e), Radar describes how many blue-collar workers sustain injuries in factories, construction sites, or mines. But opioids can be highly addictive, and patients who are prescribed a powerful painkiller can become hooked.
“When you add hopelessness, unemployment, and lack of education on top of all that, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster,” Radar says. Fortunately, Radar cites naloxone as a lifesaver. In 2016, the Huntington Fire Department used naloxone to revive 100 people from overdoses.
Can naloxone change the tide in the fight against the opioid epidemic, or does Heroin(e) overstate the drug’s importance?
As of 2019, 50,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid overdoses. Why are these overdoses so deadly? An opioid overdose can slow or stop a person’s breathing. People who overdose can also experience other related health complications. For example, narcotics can dull your nerve cells, which may impair a person’s mobility and cause them to fall or have another accidental injury. When combined with other drugs or substances, an opioid overdose can quickly become lethal.
Naloxone undoubtedly saves lives. A 2017 study from Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston found that 93.5% of patients survived an opioid overdose when doctors or EMTs administered naloxone.
But naloxone is a powerful health tool outside of the emergency room, too. Every state has a naloxone access law, which means that anyone can use the drug in a crisis situation — even if they’re not a medical professional. One common form of naloxone is Narcan. When health providers put Narcan directly into the hands of community members, those health providers empower those community members to step up if they witness an overdose. And when time is of the essence after an opioid overdose, a bystander or friend with Narcan can be the difference between life and death.
On September 1st, 2021, 17 counties across West Virginia will distribute free Narcan kits. Participating counties hope to give away 8,000 doses of Narcan in one day. These health advocates hope that residents will not have to use the naloxone. But in a state battered by the opioid epidemic, these advocates know that having the drug on hand can provide valuable peace of mind and, in the worst of scenarios, invaluable protection during an overdose.
While naloxone can bring people back from the brink of an overdose, it can’t eliminate the broader social inequities that perpetuate this epidemic. Dr. Scott Weiner is an emergency physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. While he saw first-hand how naloxone helped thousands of patients survive, he told CNN, “It doesn’t treat the underlying problem.” A year after surviving an overdose, 1 in 10 patients had passed away. A third of these patients died from another overdose.
What do these statistics mean about the role of naloxone in the opioid epidemic? While naloxone is a vital emergency drug, it cannot stop opioid addiction. Ending the epidemic will require both preventative and reactive care: a daunting overhaul of West Virginia’s struggling healthcare system. Health professionals and community advocates will need to work together to prevent people from becoming addicted to prescription or non-prescription narcotics, rehabilitate those patients who have become addicted, and save those people who overdose.
In Heroin(e), Radar argues that naloxone can provide an opportunity for life and recovery: “I certainly don’t think that naloxone is enabling, by any stretch of the manner … The only qualification for getting into long-term recovery is you have to be alive. If I save someone 50 times, that’s 50 chances to get into long-term recovery.” Naloxone can help individuals recover from their overdoses. And when communities address root issues of healthcare inequity, they can also recover from the conditions that have caused the opioid epidemic in the first place.
While Huntington is nicknamed the overdose capital, it can change this identity. If you are interested in learning more about how to protect loved ones from a potential opioid overdose, ask your local health department about free Narcan kits, naloxone training opportunities, or rehabilitation options.