The power of naloxone

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As soon as Harbour Housing introduced naloxone a life was saved. A decade on they are looking back on one of their best decisions, as Emily Hill explains. read it in DDN Magazine.

Emily Hill is tenancy sustainment officer: communications and research at Harbour Housing
Emily Hill is tenancy sustainment officer: communications and research at Harbour Housing

Homeless charity Harbour Housing is celebrating a decade of its naloxone scheme, which is proving effective in saving lives from opioid overdoses. Naloxone is a competitive antagonist which, simply put, means that it is a drug that can temporarily reverse the effects of an overdose through knocking the opioids off the receptors.

It has been described by staff at Harbour as a ‘miracle drug’ as it can bring people back from the brink of death, and has been used to successfully prevent 46 cases of overdose at Harbour since it was introduced in 2009.

The drug is administered via syringe directly into the muscle and is incredibly fast acting, in most cases reviving the patient in minutes.

Jade Barron, a tenancy sustainment officer at Harbour, has intervened in several overdose situations. ‘It’s incredible how quickly the naloxone takes effect. People can be revived immediately and the great thing about it is that there are no negative side effects so it’s completely safe to use,’ she said. ‘Sometimes it acts as a wake-up call. I’ve had a resident be brought back with naloxone and the next week decide to fully commit to recovery.’

And with each naloxone kit costing as little as £30 it is clear that easier access to this life-saving drug could help to save thousands of lives, as well as taxpayers’ money.

Harbour was approached by Marion Barton, social inclusion lead for the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Drug and Alcohol Action Team (DAAT), in 2009 and asked to pilot the scheme. At the time Harbour was tolerant to alcohol use on site but not the use of drugs, and despite this had sadly lost residents to overdose.

It was for this reason, says Chris Abbott, Harbour’s head of housing, that management decided to go ahead with the project. ‘We wanted to make things safer for our residents, and naloxone seemed like an excellent way to do this,’ he said.

‘Just after we had initiated the project we had another overdose incident and this time we were able to save their life with the naloxone. We knew then that we would do whatever we could to go ahead with this project and ensure that naloxone was available to whoever needed it.’

Naloxone was more heavily regulated back in 2009 and could only be prescribed directly to a drug user, which was not an effective way to ensure their safety as they would be unable to use it on themselves in an overdose situation. Harbour has been instrumental in developing national naloxone policy, helping to influence the change in 2015 that allowed the drug to be prescribed to a responsible person and kept in communal areas of supported accommodation facilities.

Over the last ten years naloxone has become an integral part of Harbour’s harm reduction procedure, with kits easily available across all of its properties in boxes attached directly to the walls, as well as in first-aid kits and kept in vehicles.

Kevin Flemen of KFX
Kevin Flemen of KFx

After the development of the naloxone scheme, Harbour was assisted by drug and housing policy expert Kevin Flemen to adjust its own policy to become tolerant to use of drugs within the law. Through having this high tolerance to both drug and alcohol use, Harbour has been able to accept referrals from those who would otherwise have nowhere else to go.

People struggling with addiction need the right support to be able to manage their substance use, and Harbour says that their tolerant ‘eyes wide open’ approach allows for honesty and trust between staff and residents, which has a really positive impact on recovery.

Drug use is much more dangerous when it is kept hidden, and recent figures from the Office of National Statistics revealed that drug-related deaths reached an all-time high of 4,359 across England and Wales last year (DDN, September, page 4).

Naloxone distribution has become much more widespread in recent years, and thanks to the hard work of the DAAT it is now available in all supported accommodations across Cornwall. All staff, residents and volunteers at Harbour are trained in the administration of naloxone, and in recent years Harbour has also trained members of staff from other supported accommodations.

We hope that the increase in availability of this life-saving drug will reduce the harm to people struggling with addiction and stop the rise of preventable deaths.

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