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UW research seeks to prevent heroin overdose

Naloxone (above) reverses the respiration-stopping effects of heroin overdose. UW Health Sciences professor Sean Sullivan co-authored a study showing that naloxone is a cost-effective way of preventing overdose death.

Photo by Joshua Bessex

Heroin antidote kits may be a cost-effective method for saving lives, according to a recent study co-authored by a UW professor.

Dr. Sean D. Sullivan, a lead researcher on the study and the director of the UW Pharmaceutical Outcomes Research and Policy Program, said he hopes these results will encourage more state funding for such kits. Sullivan found that distributing heroin antidote kits, which contain the drug Naloxone, could reduce overdose deaths.

Sullivan and his co-author Dr. Phillip Coffin, the director of Substance Use Research at the San Francisco Department of Public Health and assistant clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco, used a mathematical model to find how it would affect the number of overdose deaths compared to the relative cost of distributing Naloxone to heroin users.

Their study found that Naloxone distribution would prevent approximately five to 10 percent of heroin overdose deaths and would cost about $400 per year — the cost of vaccinating children against the flu, checking blood pressure in a clinic, or smoking cessation counseling, according to Coffin.

“[Naloxone distribution] is among the cheapest medical interventions we could employ for the expected benefit,” he said.

Coffin said he suspects the benefits are greater than the study suggests.

“The model was designed to be really conservative so that it would minimize the benefit of Naloxone and bias the result against Naloxone distribution being cost-effective,” he said. “[In] San Francisco, we saw a reduction in heroin deaths from over 150 to 10 per year [after distributing Naloxone].”

Despite favorable statistics found by distribution centers in San Francisco and across the nation, there is still a shortage of funding for these programs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 76 percent of the states with high drug overdose rates in 2008 did not have a community-based opioid-overdose prevention program that distributed Naloxone.

Washington is one of the 15 states that distributes Naloxone. Seattle has three such programs. However, many people in Washington would like to see more government funding for these programs. 

The nonprofit needle exchange organization in the U-District, known as the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) has been distributing Naloxone since its legalization in the summer of 2010. Shilo Murphy, the executive director of the PHRA, said the exchange’s Naloxone distribution is self-funded.

“Our budget for Naloxone is just out of our pockets, and out of the pockets of our individual contributions, which we desperately need to keep the program going,” Murphy said. “We would love [state] funding for our Naloxone program.”

More state funding for these types of programs is in especially high demand; there has been a recent surge in heroin use in Washington, according to T. Ron Jackson, an associate professor at the UW School of Social Work, and former executive director of Evergreen Treatment Services, a methadone treatment center.

Besides a shortage in funds, Jackson said there are other difficulties in creating Naloxone distribution centers in new, particularly rural, locations.

“Clinics such as Evergreen Treatment Services are often seen as unwelcome neighbors,” Jackson said. “There’s often … community opposition that sort of relates this notion that if you build it, you’ll be attracting addicts. Well, the addicts are already there.”

Evergreen Treatment Services does not currently distribute Naloxone, but plans on doing so soon. One of the main issues to work out before then is, again, funding. Sullivan hopes that, with the publication of his recent study, there will be a response from public officials to help out these programs.

“One of the reasons [Coffin and I] are actually doing the study is because distribution programs like this are always subject to some concern by public health and city officials in times where we have fiscally tight budgets,” Sullivan said. “[We] thought that it would be important … to make an argument to public officials that these programs actually pay for themselves.”

Reach reporter Shirley Qiu at news@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @callmeshirleyq

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