Prescriptions of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone are soaring, and experts say that could be a reason overdose deaths have stopped rising for the first time in nearly three decades. The number of naloxone prescriptions dispensed by U.S. retail pharmacies doubled from 2017 to last year, rising from 271,000 to 557,000, health officials reported August 6.
The United States is in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history. About 68,000 people died of overdoses last year, according to preliminary government statistics report in July, a drop from the more than 70,000 in 2017.
About two-thirds of U.S. overdose deaths involve some kind of opioid, a class of drugs that includes heroin, certain prescription painkillers and illicit fentanyl. Naloxone is medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, restoring breathing and bringing someone back to consciousness. It first went on sale in 1971 as an injection. An easier-to-use nasal spray version, Narcan, was approved in 2015.
Local, state and federal officials have embraced naloxone as a lifesaving measure. Cities and states have standing orders that allow pharmacies to give it out without a doctor’s prescription, and officials have tried to put it into the hands of virtually anyone who might encounter a person overdosing, including drug users, police and even libraries.
Fewer than 1,300 naloxone prescriptions were dispensed in 2012, meaning the number grew more than 430-fold in six years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers.
Health officials said pharmacists should be giving Naloxone out even more. “We don’t think anybody is at the level we’d like to see them,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat of the CDC.
The CDC report is based on data from OQVIA, a company that tracks health care information, and looked at prescriptions from more than 50,000 retail pharmacies across the country. It included both prescriptions written by doctors for specific patients and those filled under the broader standing orders.
The CDC recommends that naloxone be prescribed to patients who are getting high-dose opioids and are at risk for an overdose. It noted that only one naloxone prescription is written for every 69 high-dose opioid prescription.
Another finding: The number of high-dose opioid prescription painkillers dispensed fell to about 38 million last year, from nearly 49 million the year before.