When Surgeon General Jerome Adams issued an advisory calling for more people to carry naloxone — not just people at overdose risk, but also friends and family — experts and advocates were almost giddy.
This is an “unequivocally positive” step forward, said Leo Beletsky, an associate professor of law and health sciences at Northeastern University.
And not necessarily a surprise. Adams, who previously was Indiana’s health commissioner, was recruited to be the nation’s top doctor in part because of his work with then-Gov. Mike Pence, now the vice president. In Indiana, Adams pushed for harm-reduction approaches, which included expanded access to naloxone and the implementation of a needle exchange to combat the state’s much-publicized HIV outbreak, which began in 2015 and was linked to injection drug use.
Others cautioned, though, that his have-naloxone-will-carry recommendation is at best limited in what it can achieve, in part because the drug is relatively expensive.
Kaiser Health News breaks down what the advisory means, experts’ concerns and what policy approaches may be in the pipeline.
Many public health advocates applaud the surgeon general’s position.
Naloxone, which is a drug that can keep drug users alive by reversing opioid overdoses, is viewed by many as the cornerstone of the harm-reduction approach to the epidemic. Experts say people with addiction problems should carry it, and so should their family, friends and acquaintances.
“We want to put it more in reach,” said Traci Green, an associate professor of emergency medicine and community health sciences at Boston University, who has extensively researched the opioid abuse crisis. “It could not have been a better endorsement.”
Others, including Diane Goodman, who penned a recent Medscape commentary reflecting on the advisory, wonder whether this is a “rational” response to the scourge, since opioid addiction is one of many health problems people might encounter in everyday life and for which treatment options are still limited.
“I’m not sure it makes much more sense than any of us carrying a bottle of nitroglycerin to treat patients with end-stage angina,” wrote Goodman, an acute-care nurse practitioner, referring to chest pain.
“What, exactly, are we offering to addicts once their condition has been reversed?” she asked, noting that without treatment and therapy programs that help wean people from addiction “the odds of survival for any length of time remain low, no matter how much reversal medication is kept nearby.”
Results would likely be limited by naloxone’s price tag.
Take Baltimore, which has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. Its health department already has pushed for more people to carry naloxone.
But the drug’s price is an issue, said Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s health commissioner, and an emergency physician. She suggested that the federal government negotiate directly for a lower price, or give more money to organizations and agencies like hers so they can afford to maintain an adequate supply.
“Every day, people are calling us at the Baltimore City Health Department and requesting naloxone, and I have to tell them I can’t afford for them to have it,” Wen said.