Will FDA-approved heroin antidote device encourage more drug use?

by Kiley Crossland
Posted 4/10/14, 10:04 am

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a device last week that can quickly inject a life-saving antidote into people who have overdosed on heroin or other opioids. 

While some say the device, called Evzio, is necessary to save lives, others argue easier access to the antidote will encourage drug use.

An estimated 16,000 people die every year from opioid-related overdoses, according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, and the number is growing. Opioids include prescription painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin, as well as the street drug heroin. 

Evzio is hand-held and simple to use. About the size of a small cell phone, it fits into a purse or medicine cabinet. When turned on, the device gives audible instructions on the process of administering the drug. Once injected, the drug takes immediate effect and, in most cases, can keep people who have overdosed on heroin or another opioid alive until they can get further medical care.

“While the larger goal is to reduce the need for products like these by preventing opioid addiction and abuse, they are extremely important innovations that will help to save lives,” Hamburg said. Drug overdoses have surpassed vehicle crashes as the leading cause of “injury death” in the United States, according to Hamburg.

The number of heroin users in the nation nearly doubled between 2007 and 2012, from 373,000 to 669,000, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. What used to be a back-alley drug is spreading all over America. Deaths from heroin overdose rose 45 percent between 2006 and 2010, according to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  Attorney General Eric Holder recently called the heroin epidemic an “urgent and growing public health crisis.” 

Naloxone, the drug that Evzio contains, is not new. It is commonly found in ambulances and emergency rooms. At least 17 states and the District of Columbia allow naloxone to be distributed to the public. With Evzio’s FDA approval, doctors in those states will now be able to prescribe the device for those who want to have it on hand, primarily drug addicts, as well as family, friends, and caretakers who live or work with them. 

But some believe increased access to the antidote will increase the use of heroin and other opioids. 

Maine Gov. Paul LePage has consistently opposed legislation to expand access to the antidote even as instances of heroin overdose increased fourfold in his state between 2011 and 2012. Last year, LePage vetoed a bill that would have allowed more emergency responders to carry the drug and also would have allowed doctors to prescribe it to addicts’ family members and caregivers. He said the antidote provided “a false sense of security that abusers are somehow safe from overdose if they have a prescription nearby.” 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Kiley Crossland

Kiley is a former WORLD correspondent.

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