In North Carolina, more than 1,000 people each year die from prescription opioid and heroin overdoses and 1 out of 4 autopsies performed are on those who have died of drug overdose.
Each year, 20,000 emergency room visits are because of opioid overdoses. Our state’s average opioid dispensing rate is such that there are 77,000 prescriptions per 100,000 residents in North Carolina. And so far in 2016, there have been 25 overdose deaths from fentanyl or other contaminants in heroin.
More people die from drug overdose than automobile accidents or firearms
To address the national epidemic of opioid addiction and unintentional drug overdoses, North Carolina is working to become a national leader and save lives by making naloxone widely available. Naloxone, often known as “narcan,” is a lifesaving drug that can be administered by a nonmedical person through a nasal spray or by injection and is used to revive a person who has overdosed on opioids, including heroin.
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North Carolina’s Good Samaritan Law cleared the way in 2013 for law enforcement to carry and use naloxone. Now, 74 law enforcement agencies across North Carolina carry it. In 2015, our state reached a major milestone when the number of opioid overdose reversals from the use of naloxone exceeded the number of overdose deaths.
To build on this success, Gov. Pat McCrory has recommended increasing access to naloxone. This solution removes barriers that prevent loved ones from obtaining this lifesaving drug and has been recommended by the governor’s Task Force on Mental Health and Substance Use.
I recently presented a proposal to the General Assembly to authorize the state health director to write a statewide standing order allowing pharmacies to dispense naloxone to people who need it. We are working with members of the General Assembly to enact this standing order legislation in the upcoming short session. If passed, it would be the first of its kind in our state’s history.
As a practicing physician for more than 30 years and from my daily interactions with clinicians and public health officials across our 100 counties, I have seen the suffering that addiction causes in families and communities. Stories like a Guilford County sheriff’s deputy saving two lives in four hours with naloxone are becoming more frequent.
Making naloxone widely available is critical to save those suffering from addiction.
The causes of this problem are as complex as the solutions, but we know both are multifaceted and require multiple strategies, from appropriate prescribing to prevention and treatment of addiction.
We have learned that naloxone does not promote drug use, but rather gives people access to a drug that may save a loved one’s life and allow that person a path toward recovery. We at the Department of Health and Human Services have worked collaboratively with our colleagues in the North Carolina Medical Society, North Carolina Medical Board, North Carolina Pharmacy Board, General Assembly, academic institutions and nonprofits to develop this standing order proposal and believe this will decrease drug overdose deaths in North Carolina.
Dr. Randall Williams is the deputy secretary for Health Services at the N.C. DHHS.