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Mark Rudolph has no doubt he would have carried Narcan, a form of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, if Michigan residents were allowed to 12 years ago.

That's when his 18-year-old son Ryan was battling a drug addiction and eventually died from an overdose in Detroit. Today, Rudolph bristles when he reads or hears criticism that freely distributing the antidote fails to help addicts who risk overdosing again despite intervention.

"To save somebody’s life is priceless," said Rudolph, a former Macomb County resident credited with helping found Families Against Narcotics, a grassroots group that works to educate others and offers Narcan training. "With Narcan, it gives them the opportunity to find sobriety. If they’re gone, they’re gone."

On Sept. 14, scores of pharmacies across Michigan are distributing free kits through a statewide initiative aimed at arming more residents with the medication to save lives.

The giveaway, which follows the International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31, coincides with first responders, law enforcement personnel and others in Metro Detroit increasingly carrying Narcan to prevent deaths as the United States remains amid the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. 

Advocates praise the measure as an important step in prevention and raising awareness.

“It’s important that every citizen that wants one has one,” said Darlene Owens, who directs substance use disorder initiatives at the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority.

Naloxone is a fast-acting medication used to reverse an opioid overdose, restoring breathing and bringing someone back to consciousness. 

It first went on sale in 1971 as an injection and is sold as a prefilled injectable syringe or nasal spray, known as Narcan, and can be administered by family members, caregivers, emergency responders and others.

The number of naloxone prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies doubled from 2017 to last year, rising from 271,000 to 557,000, health officials reported in August.

Experts say the rising naloxone prescriptions could be a reason overdose deaths have stopped rising for the first time in nearly three decades. But the numbers remain high.

About 68,000 people died of overdoses last year, according to preliminary government statistics reported in July, a drop from the more than 70,000 in 2017.

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows fatal drug overdoses were estimated to have declined to 2,531 from 2,665 in 2018-19 in Michigan. In 2017, 1,941 people died from an opioid overdose in Michigan.

The number of opioid-related deaths in Detroit climbed from 46 in 2012 to 280 in 2017, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The startling statistics inspired Henry Ford Health System officials to have 13 of its pharmacies participate in the state naloxone distribution day.

“We’re committed to being part of the solution to help reduce the number of overdose deaths caused by opioids,” said Heidi Schultz, a registered pharmacist who manages ambulatory pharmacy operations at Henry Ford. “This kind of public service effort can make a real difference in our communities across Michigan.”

The system's kits are limited to one per person ages 14 and older while supplies last, hospital officials said in a statement. People are not required to register their name or other personal information to receive one, but health care professionals and first responders are not eligible, according to the release.

Overall, more than 50,000 kits are being shipped to pharmacies statewide for distribution on Sept. 14, the same day as the Michigan Celebrate Recovery Walk and Rally on Belle Isle in Detroit, where about 3,000 were slated to be handed out, state officials said.

More than 1,300 kits are slated to be given through 40 Wayne County pharmacies, Owens said.

The distribution comes as county officials continue offering training on how to use Narcan at businesses, churches and other groups that request them, she added.

Owens credits those efforts, as well as town halls, with helping the county report an 8.2% decrease in opioid-related overdose deaths between fiscal years 2017 and 2018.

In 2017, the life-saving antidote for narcotic overdoses became available over-the-counter in Michigan following action by then-Gov. Rick Snyder. Rescue workers, law enforcement officers and Michigan State Police had already been carrying it.

Oakland County Sheriff’s officials had been deploying the antidote since 2015. “Since then, we’ve saved almost 240 lives,” Sheriff Michael Bouchard said.

Narcan has become valuable in many cases, including in August, when deputies administered it to a 22-year-old Oxford Township woman who appeared to have overdosed on a painkiller, according to a sheriff’s office report. Her boyfriend had given her an unsuccessful dose of naloxone before they arrived.

The potency of the overdoses sometimes requires multiple shots, and deputies have aided repeat users, Bouchard said. “We’ve saved people multiple times and we’ve had people saved more than once die.”

That’s why Bouchard has called for policies requiring people who have overdosed to remain hospitalized until they are admitted or ordered to a long-term treatment program.

Among measures to improve the environment, he cites his department’s Operation Medicine Cabinet, which allows for prescription drugs at drop-offs. For more than a year, drug addicts have been able to walk into sheriff’s substations and seek connections to treatment, Bouchard said.

“It’s a multifaceted societal issue,” he told the Detroit News. “We don’t think the opportunity is there to solve it with one issue.”

Families Against Narcotics officials have been offering more Narcan training and expects to surpass their goal of distributing 1,300 doses by late September, executive director Linda Davis said.

“It’s something that everybody in every community should be trained on, from school teachers to business owners,” said David Clayton, the group's regional and outreach director.

Having the medication widely available through more free distributions is “long overdue,” but doesn’t go far enough, Davis said. “We need to find a way in our system to make sure people stay in a detox situation for seven days then (are) offered a 30-day recovery program.”

Changing perceptions of drug addiction preceding overdoses also is necessary, Davis noted. “It’s a disease and should be treated as such. …The message always needs to be that recovery is possible.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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