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This drug can stop a fatal opioid overdose — and it’s available now

Pharmacist Liz Rankos shows some of the forms of Naloxone available July 18 at Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy in Tacoma. Timely administration of naloxone can save the life of someone who has overdosed on heroin or another opioid.
Pharmacist Liz Rankos shows some of the forms of Naloxone available July 18 at Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy in Tacoma. Timely administration of naloxone can save the life of someone who has overdosed on heroin or another opioid. phaley@thenewstribune.com

A recent revision to a state Good Samaritan law means people no longer need a prescription to get a medicine that can stop potentially fatal drug overdoses.

The Tacoma Fire Department has used the medication, called naloxone, for years. So have people with a doctor’s prescription for the opioid overdose antidote.

The revision to the Good Samaritan law, passed last year, means others can get the medication without a prescription as long as the pharmacy has a collaborative agreement with a physician.

“This is a real opportunity to save lives,” said Nigel Turner, communicable disease division director for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.

The 2015 change specifically allows pharmacists to dispense naloxone without a prescription to someone in a position to help another experiencing an opioid overdose, he said.

The Tacoma Fire Department is increasingly using naloxone when responding to suspected opioid overdoses. The department dispensed naloxone 68 times in 2010. That increased to 187 times last year, according to the fire department.

Doctors often prescribe opioids — OxyContin, Percocet, morphine and Vicodin are a few — to treat pain, but people can become addicted. When prescription painkillers become too expensive or unavailable, some turn to a relatively cheap and available alternative: heroin.

Last year, 438 people sought their first treatment for opioid addiction, according to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. That’s up from 129 admissions in 2002.

It’s a trend mirrored across the nation as more people become addicted to opioids. In Northwest states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska and Idaho — an average of 153 people died from overdoses per month in 2014.

No demographic is immune — rock legend Prince died of a fentanyl overdose. Children as young as 15 have died from opioid overdoses in Pierce County in recent years.

Obama announces plans to fight opioid, heroin epidemic

President Obama announced in March​ during the​ ​National Rx Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta, Georgia​ new initiatives to expand addiction treatment and increase coverage for substance abuse and mental health.​ ​

  WhiteHouse.gov​

The change to make getting naloxone easier was welcome news to North Tacoma resident Bryan Jeffers-Atkins, whose partner has been in opioid addiction recovery for nearly a year.

He learned about the availability of the medication at a recent Pierce County town hall on opioid addiction and spoke to his partner about it.

“I said, ‘If there’s a slip-up, do you want to have this on hand?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, that’s probably a good idea,’” Jeffers-Atkins said.

But he’s been frustrated at the lack of availability of naloxone from area pharmacies.

“There’s a state law on record and you’re not offering resources to help fix the problem,” he said.

Until last month, only six locations offered naloxone in Pierce County, according to the website stopoverdose.org. The website is run by the University of Washington’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

“It’s probably a lack of perceived demand,” Turner said of the low number of Pierce County pharmacies that carry the drug. “Awareness and demand for naloxone is increasing. It’s great if we can get more pharmacies to distribute it.”

He said people should speak with their pharmacist about naloxone if it is not available.

In June, all Walgreens locations statewide — including more than a dozen shops in the Tacoma area — began selling the drug without a prescription in certain cases.

If a Walgreens pharmacy does not have naloxone in stock, customers usually can pick up the medication the next day or go to a store that has it, spokesman Phil Caruso said.

MultiCare and CHI Franciscan Health facilities use naloxone in their emergency rooms. A prescription is needed to obtain the medication from MultiCare’s 11 retail pharmacies. Franciscan has naloxone available only for inpatient use.

Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy has offered naloxone for years, but only for those with a prescription. In 2014, Rankos’ started selling the drug to people without a prescription if they had up to an hour of training, depending on the product they want and how familiar they are with needles.

Training can include how to inject the drug or how to use the nasal spray version of naloxone, and how to recognize the symptoms of an overdose.

There also are reminders to call 911 even if naloxone seems to have worked because once the medicine wears off, any opioids left in the body can trigger another overdose.

Pharmacist Liz Rankos said the pharmacy has dispensed naloxone without a prescription through an agreement with a local addiction specialist physician.

The Point Defiance AIDS Project started offering naloxone in February. Executive director Alisa Solberg said the group offers training in how to use the medication and has distributed 203 kits so far this year, mostly to intravenous drug users or their partners.

“It’s innocuous and it’s been around forever,” Solberg said of naloxone. “If I were to inject you now, nothing would happen. You might get a headache.”

Kate Martin: 253-597-8542, @KateReports

Locations that offer naloxone in Pierce County:

Costco: 2219 S. 37th St., Tacoma.

Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy: 101 N. Tacoma Ave., Tacoma.

Kirk’s Pharmacy: 104 Mashell Ave. N., Eatonville.

Kirk’s Pharmacy: 11212 Sunrise Blvd. E., Puyallup.

Kirk’s Pharmacy: 3909 10th St. SE, Puyallup.

Point Defiance AIDS Project: Location varies by day. Check the website for details, tacomasp.org.

Walgreens locations statewide also offer naloxone.

More about naloxone

Naloxone comes in more than one version.

Some kits include syringes to inject the drug into a large muscle, such as the buttocks or shoulder. Another form, with the brand name Narcan, dispenses a mist squirted into each nostril.

Both block the opioid receptors in the brain for about 30 to 90 minutes, said pharmacist Liz Rankos of Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy. Each has a shelf life of 18 to 24 months.

“Some people, such as IV drug users, might be more comfortable with the injectable naloxone because they’re comfortable with needles,” Rankos said. “The injectable form of naloxone is the cheapest.”

The cost for two doses of naloxone — what health experts recommend to have on hand — is about $100.

The nasal mist removes the risk of an accidental needle stick, she said. People who use intravenous drugs can contract other diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, more easily if they share needles.

The nasal spray is available over the counter in 17 states, but not Washington.

More about naloxone

Naloxone comes in more than one version.

Some kits include syringes to inject the drug into a large muscle, such as the buttocks or shoulder. Another form, with the brand name Narcan, dispenses a mist squirted into each nostril.

Both block the opioid receptors in the brain for about 30 to 90 minutes, said pharmacist Liz Rankos of Rankos’ Stadium Pharmacy. Each has a shelf life of 18 to 24 months.

“Some people, such as IV drug users, might be more comfortable with the injectable naloxone because they’re comfortable with needles,” Rankos said. “The injectable form of naloxone is the cheapest.”

The cost for two doses of naloxone — what health experts recommend to have on hand — is about $100.

The nasal mist removes the risk of an accidental needle stick, she said. People who use intravenous drugs can contract other diseases, such as HIV and hepatitis C, more easily if they share needles.

The nasal spray is available over the counter in 17 states, but not Washington.

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