Deaths from opioid overdoses, including heroin, are preventable with the use of an antidote that can now be legally prescribed to the public.
The antidote is known as Narcan, generically Naloxone, and can reverse an opioid overdose if administered fast enough and with subsequent emergency care. In June, South Carolina passed a law that allows anyone to obtain the drug with a prescription.
Proponents of the law say that everyone should have the antidote on hand because it can save lives, not only for drug users but also for those on opioid pain medication who accidently overdose or for children who accidentally ingest narcotics.
More than 120 narcotic overdoses were potentially reversed in Berkeley with Narcan in the past four years, according to data obtained by The Post and Courier. Narcan was administered to more than 550 people in Charleston County within the past three years.
The antidote has been used by health professionals and emergency medical services for decades. Chemically, it is similar to narcotics, such as heroin, codeine, fentanyl and morphine.
The drugs compete for opiate receptors in the brain, but Narcan displaces the opioids and reverses respiratory failure associated with narcotic overdoses.
“It’s like one of those miracle drugs,” said Todd McGeorge, assistant chief of Charleston County EMS. “I’ve seen Narcan administered to a person that is unconscious, not breathing and in respiratory arrest and on the way to the hospital, they’re sitting up talking to me.”
Local rescue personnel can administer the medication through the nose, intravenously or through the muscle. The drug is considered very safe, with minimal side effects to even those not on drugs.
It does wear off quicker than opioids, though, and officials warn that administering the antidote must be coupled with calling 911 or receiving immediate medical care to be totally effective.
Elaine Pawlowski and George Warren are both advocates of the new law expanding access to Narcan.
“Every mom should get it,” Pawlowski said. “You get EpiPens if you have a kid whose allergic to bee stings.”
Pawlowski serves on Gov. Nikki Haley’s prescription drug abuse task force. Her son died in 2012 from substance abuse, and she is now an advocate for addiction education, treatment and progressive laws on the subject.
She said not enough prescribers in the area know that they can prescribe Narcan and that there needs to be more training.
Pawlowski and Warren are part of the Lowcountry Harm Reduction Coalition, which offers addicts access to syringes, overdose prevention and referrals to local health services, according to its website. The group has taken on educating the public about Narcan and trying to get it into the hands of first responders other than EMS, such as police and firefighters.
Warren spoke in favor of the new law at a judiciary committee meeting earlier this year and worked on getting law enforcement on board, particularly the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Al Cannon said he worked with Warren and the S.C. Sheriffs’ Association to help move the law forward out of concern about the growing drug overdose problem across the nation.
President Barack Obama also recently announced several commitments from the Fraternal Order of Police to expand law enforcement training on the use of the antidote.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has labeled the growing heroin problem as an epidemic and lists supporting the development and distribution of Narcan and expanding training in its use as solutions.
The White House has made a push to expand the availability of Narcan and several pharmacy chains, including CVS and RiteAid, have agreed to expand accessibility of the drug.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Reach Melissa Boughton at 937-5594 or at Twitter.com/mboughtonPC.