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Worldwide action urged to curb overdose deaths

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Ten of thousands of lives could be saved every year by ensuring ready access to the drug overdose treatment naloxone, the World Health Organisation has said.

Issuing its first-ever Guidelines on the Community Management of Opioid Overdose, the WHO said more than 150,000 people died around the world every year because of drug overdoses, many of them as a result of taking an opioid such as heroin

The UN health agency said that improving access to the opioid-reversal medication naloxone, particularly in countries where there are limited health services for injecting drug users, could save many thousands of lives at minimal cost.

Burnet Institute researcher Professor Paul Dietze, who was on the working group that developed the WHO guidelines, said they gave countries a reference point for the development of effective drug overdose prevention and treatment measures.

“Overdose remains a significant cause of deaths in Australia, with around one person dying every day as a result of injecting opioids such as heroin,” Professor Dietze said. “A key message in the WHO Guidelines is that opioid overdose is both preventable and reversible if witnessed by others, as it is on most cases.”

In Australia, programs to train drug users and provide them with doses of naloxone have already reported success in saving lives.

Harm Reduction Victoria (HRV), which has so far trained and equipped more than 300 injecting drug users with naloxone in the past 12 months, said it had already received reports of 34 instances where drug overdose had been effectively reversed.

“We know it is making a real difference,” HRV Executive Officer Jenny Kelsall said. “We look forward to the day when every opiate user carries naloxone and regards it as an essential item in their tool kit.”

Naloxone is a prescription-only medicine that is routinely carried and administered by paramedics and emergency physicians, but it is also being offered in take-home kits for drug users and their families.

Professor Dietze said that, through the National Naloxone Reference Group, organisations such as HRV were sharing information on getting naloxone into the hands of drug users and training them and their friends and family about what to do in case of an overdose.

“Our biggest challenge is getting naloxone out there to everyone at risk of overdose,” Dr Ingrid van Beek of the Kings Cross Kirketon Road Centre said. “Naloxone needs to be readily available in all parts of the country to maximise its impact on overdose death rates.”

Adrian Rollins