NEW YORK (AP) – Prescriptions for the drug overturning naloxone are on the rise and experts say it could be the reason that overdose deaths have stopped rising for the first time in nearly three decades.
The number of naloxone prescriptions issued by US retail pharmacies doubled from 2017 to last year, rising from 271,000 to 557,000, health officials said Tuesday.
The United States is in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. About 68,000 people died from overdoses last year, according to preliminary government statistics reported last month, a drop from over 70,000 in 2017.
"We can only hope that this extraordinary increase in naloxone prescription contributes to this stabilization or even to the crisis," said Catherine Keyes, a Columbia University drug abuse expert.
About two-thirds of US overdose deaths include some type of opioid, a drug class that includes heroin, some prescription painkillers, and illicit fentanyl. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses, restoring breathing and bringing someone back to consciousness. It was first sold in 1971 as an injection. An easier to use version of the nasal spray, Narcan, was approved in 2015.
Local, state and federal officials have taken naloxone as a rescue measure. Some cities and states have standing orders that allow pharmacies to dispense it without a prescription, and employees have tried to get it in the hands of just about anyone who may encounter an overdose person, including drug users, police and even librarians.
CDC researchers note that there are fewer than 1,300 naloxone prescriptions dispensed in 2012, meaning that their number has increased more than 430 times in six years.
Health officials said pharmacies should be distributed even more.
"We do not consider anyone to be at the level we would like to see them," said Dr. Anne Schuhat of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC report is based on data from IQVIA, a company that monitors health information and reviews prescriptions from more than 50,000 retail pharmacies nationwide. It includes both prescriptions written by physicians for specific patients and those completed by the broader standing orders.
However, the report only offers a partial picture, as only about 20% of naloxone was sold to retail pharmacies in 2017, according to an earlier government report.
Still, this is the first look at the CDC from a close look at where most retail deliveries are. The agency provided data on about 2,900 of the nation's 3,100 counties and parishes.
Researchers have found that it is most common in cities and the south.
According to experts, the findings probably reflect a number of factors. More naloxone is likely prescribed in places where more people use opioids and where policies increase access.
For example, of the 30 counties with the highest naloxone distribution rate, 11 are in Virginia. Virginia has a lower overdose death rate than most other states, but allows anyone to buy naloxone without a prescription and has taken other steps to encourage its use.
The CDC recommends that naloxone should be prescribed to patients who receive high-dose opioids and are at risk of overdose. He noted that only one prescription for naloxone is written for every 69 high-dose opioid prescriptions.
Another finding: The number of high-dose prescription painkillers dropped to about 38 million last year, from nearly 49 million a year ago.
This may have contributed to the fall in overdose deaths last year, Shukata said.
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