Without ‘miracle drug,’ heroin overdose deaths could’ve been higher

Heroin-related overdose deaths in East Baton Rouge Parish skyrocketed last year, increasing nearly sevenfold from 2012 to 2013.

But the numbers may have been higher if not for what at least one first responder calls “a miracle drug,” naloxone.

The drug, which paramedics can administer intravenously or nasally, works by reversing the often fatal shutdown of the respiratory system and depression of the central nervous system caused by opioid overdoses, said Dr. Beau Clark, the parish coroner.

East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services paramedics reported using naloxone on apparent overdose victims 258 times in 2013, up from 169 in 2012 and even less the year before, said Mike Chustz, an EMS spokesman.

The drug, also known by its brand name Narcan, has been used to reverse opioid overdoses for decades.

The resurgence of heroin, which can be smoked, snorted or injected intravenously, has led to an increased use of the “miracle drug,” as Chustz calls it.

“It saves lives,” he said. “But it can only save someone if we get notified early in the process.”

Chustz said the agency purchased more naloxone than usual in 2013, but EMS hasn’t had to increase the amount of it carries on each ambulance. He said EMS policy instructs paramedics to provide naloxone to most young apparent heroin overdose victims because the drug is safe and works “really, really good.”

The Los Angeles Times reported last week in the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death that the wonder drug has been used for decades but isn’t widely available.

Also, an emergency room physician wrote an op-ed column in Friday’s New York Times begging lawmakers to make the drug more widely available to users, because the key to the drug’s success is quick administration.