Dubai, United Arab Emirates (CNN) — With overdose deaths nearing record levels in the United States, naloxone will become available to more people, as potential policy shifts could make it easier to obtain this year.
But experts say the drug, which is designed to reverse overdoses, is not a solution to the country’s opioid epidemic.
About 1.2 million doses of “naloxone” were dispensed by retail pharmacies during 2021, according to data published by the American Medical Association, about nine times more than five years ago.
Almost all states allow pharmacies or other qualified organizations to sell the drug without a prescription to people at risk of overdose or who are assisting someone at risk.
However, research indicates that the supply of naloxone needs to be more widespread across the country to make a significant difference in reducing overdose deaths.
More than 107,000 people died of overdose during the 12-month period ending in August 2022, according to the latest data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Control.
Synthetic opioids, particularly the drug fentanyl, were involved in more than two-thirds of those deaths.
Edward Boyer, an emergency physician who specializes in medical toxicology at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, said fentanyl is a powerful, fast-acting drug that’s causing people to go into emergency rooms with increased needs than ever before.
There are some major changes at the federal level this year that could help improve access to the life-saving drug nationwide, including a move to make naloxone available without a prescription, which could happen as early as next March. .
The US Food and Drug Administration will meet next month to review the first application of naloxone, a nasal spray that will be available without a prescription.
However, experts say that improving access to naloxone is only one step in a thousand mile journey.
And while making the drug available without a prescription will help make it easier to access, experts say it’s important it gets to the right people.
The experts emphasized that the most important work in combating the devastating consequences of the drug overdose epidemic will come with continued focus on opioid use disorder treatment and other harm reduction strategies.
“While enabling people to access quality treatment for substance use disorders is critical, we must also recognize that people need to survive in order to have that option,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Volkow said decades of research showed beyond any doubt that harm-reduction strategies can be as effective as injection-service programs, and may be life-saving, such as the drug to reverse opioid overdose, naloxone. However, these strategies are not sufficient, and they do not reach everyone who needs them.