Drug Addicts Can Learn How to Save Lives, Yale Researchers Find

Drug users can be taught to identify and quickly respond to overdoses of heroin or other opioids as effectively as medical experts, a Yale University study suggests.

The study supports efforts of some drug counselors, physicians and public health experts who have started community-based programs to train addicts and supply them with the opioid antagonist drug naloxone in order to respond to potentially fatal drug overdoses.

Naxolone, a medication lacking in abuse potential and routinely used by emergency medical personnel to treat heroin and other opioid overdoses, can be administered by a simple muscular injection. The drug temporarily combats effects of an overdose until medical help can arrive. Critics of such a harm-reduction strategy, however, have questioned whether drug users have the ability to recognize an overdose and can properly administer the drug. This study, recently published in the early online edition of the journal Addiction, suggests this concern is unwarranted.

“You have to keep people alive long enough to get access to drug treatment for their addiction,’’ said Traci Craig Green, a doctoral candidate in the Yale School of Public Health and lead author of the research “You can’t treat a dead person.”

Ten individuals who were regular users of heroin or other opioid drugs such as oxycodone or hydromorphone were enrolled in the study at each of six sites across the United States. They were divided into two groups, one with members who had previously received training in overdose response and one with members who had not. Individuals were interviewed to determine if they could recognize signs of opioid overdose and when it was appropriate to administer naloxone. Their responses were then compared to those given by a group of medical experts.

The training, conducted well before the interviews were done, included recognizing differences between overdoses caused by opioids and those caused by other substances such as cocaine, for which use of the drug naloxone is not indicated.

“The study shows opioid users with training can spot an opioid overdose, are less likely to miss true opioid overdoses, and can determine whether naloxone should be administered and when it should not be administered,” Green said.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. Other authors included Robert Heimer and Lauretta E. Grau from the school of public health.

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Bill Hathaway: william.hathaway@yale.edu, 203-432-1322