The NZ Drug Foundation is calling for donations to help them distribute a life-saving medication they have been spending years calling for.
NZ Drug Foundation Executive Director, Sarah Helm, says that around 46 New Zealanders die each year from opioid overdoses and a further 650 are hospitalised.
“Those numbers are tragic, but we also face the risk of an opioid crisis, like that being experienced in North America and Europe. In those areas, tens of thousands of people are dying from drugs like MDMA, methamphetamine and heroin being adulterated with a powerful and deadly opioid, fentanyl.”
A recent report in the International Journal of Drug Policy also said New Zealand is “grossly underprepared” should an opioid crisis hit.
“Naloxone saves lives,” says Helm. “Overseas, including in Australia, naloxone is being freely distributed to people who use drugs to take home with them, through pharmacies, charities and GPs. And first-responders like police and ambulances are equipped with it.”
“We have been calling for naloxone distribution for several years now and while there has been small progress – we now have a nasal spray approved that people can take home with them, and some ambulances and some Needle Exchanges have it on hand – it is still not funded and is not widely distributed.”
Helm says if we wait for a crisis before we increase naloxone availability, it will be too late. “If we saw MDMA or methamphetamine adulterated with fentanyl in New Zealand, we would likely have scores of people die quite quickly.”
“We would be stuck, because access to naloxone is restricted – for example there are only some hundreds of doses of the easier to use nasal spray even in the country at the moment. And because drug use is illegal, and therefore the people using are somewhat unknown, it would be difficult to distribute the medication in a crisis.”
"One of our staff is from Canada and experienced the opioid crisis first-hand. She lost close friends very suddenly to an adulterated supply of MDMA. Her and other students ended up having to be trained to administer first aid and naloxone overnight."
“That is why we want to proactively get naloxone out there now – to people who are using opioids and are already at risk, and to people who use drugs like MDMA and methamphetamine, and in the hands of all first responders like police and ambulances.”
“We hope a drug company will apply for Pharmac funding now, but we want to start getting this stuff out there now not wait more years while more lives are lost.”
In Australia, a three year pilot has seen positive results. Naloxone distribution has also meant helpful conversations and relationships have been formed between people who use drugs and the pharmacy, doctor or non-profit giving it out.
“We can’t in good conscience keep waiting and do nothing. That’s why we are calling on people to donate now to help us raise $45,000 to purchase an initial 500 doses of naloxone. We will work with our partner organisations like the Needle Exchange to distribute these, while we continue to champion proper funding and distribution plans being put in place.”
In the last year, Police have also advised the risk has grown with the reappearance of ‘homebake’ heroin, which can be more potent and unpredictable.
“The Needle Exchange are applying for some funding to get naloxone to heroin users in New Zealand, and we are very supportive of that. We need a lot more doses of naloxone available to meet current and emerging need.”
People can donate to the Drug Foundation’s appeal at givealittle.co.nz/cause/help-stop-opioid-deaths
Drug harm experts say funding for a nasal spray that reverses opioid overdoses is critical in the face of an increasingly toxic drug supply and the emergence of powerful synthetic opioids.
Survey participants also reported that barriers to accessing services, resources and information were high.
A group of powerful synthetic opioids that were first detected in the country just a year ago may have already been linked to several deaths.