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Overdose deaths are preventable [Commentary]

Last year, 858 Maryland residents died due to alcohol or drug intoxication; that's enough to replace the entire University of Maryland football team more than eight times. This year is on track to be even more deadly, with a 33 percent increase in accidental opioid overdose deaths recorded in the first three months of 2014 alone. We do not want any more families, friends and communities to grieve their fallen loved ones. It is time for all of us to call this problem what is: an epidemic.

Any opioid, such as heroin or prescription medications like oxycodone and methadone, can cause an overdose death. It most often occurs in people with a low tolerance, those with a new prescription, the recently incarcerated or the recently detoxed. These populations must be extra cautious especially because heroin varies widely in strength and purity, and a "regular" dose can be fatal on any given day. Mixing opioids and alcohol or other drugs is also very risky.

Opioid overdoses, however, are easily reversible resulting in a literal second chance at life. Naloxone, a safe, easily-administered prescription medication prevents death by restoring breathing just like using an Epi-pen to reverse a severe allergic reaction. Paramedics and some police officers use it as a first line treatment, and now Marylanders who witness an overdose can get their own take-home naloxone kit after attending a brief training.

In the past few years, Maryland lawmakers passed important new laws aimed at decreasing the number of deaths from preventable overdose. A revised Good Samaritan law goes into effect on Oct. 1st and improves the odds of getting medical attention for those experiencing an overdose by providing partial immunity against criminal charges for those who call authorities. For example, underage drinkers will not be held liable if they call 911 to get medical attention for a severely intoxicated friend. Pragmatic policy decisions like these are an important start to actively address the harms of substance use in Maryland.

This year, local groups and organizations are calling attention to the preventable and widespread overdose epidemic during Maryland Overdose Awareness Week, Aug. 28th through 31st. This is a time to spread the message that overdose death is preventable, to commemorate those who lost their lives or were injured due to overdose and to acknowledge the grief felt by their families and friends.

Already, over one-hundred family members, concerned friends and active drug users have been helped after only one day of Overdose Awareness Week. For example, on Aug. 28th in Baltimore City, opiate drug users received training and free naloxone at the city's mobile needle exchange sites. Also on the 28th, friends and families of opiate users were trained on overdose prevention by the Baltimore Student Harm Reduction Coalition (BSHRC)at the New Antioch Church (BSHRC is a diverse group of students, health professionals and community members committed to using harm reduction approaches to reduce the harmful consequences associated with drug use, sex work and other potentially dangerous activities, to achieve better health outcomes in Baltimore and around the state). Finally, a candlelight vigil will be held at the Towson Courthouse Square on August 31st at 7:00 PM.

Even if you can't make it to any of these events, you can commemorate our losses and spread the word by visiting Health Care for the Homeless to view an art project memorializing those we have lost or even share your support on social media, using the hashtags #notonemore or #nomoreODinMD. Email overdosebaltimore@gmail.com for more information on free overdose response training and other Overdose Awareness Week events.

If we only learn one lesson from Overdose Awareness Week, let it be that when prevention is possible, losing even one Marylander to overdose is unacceptable.

Dr. Deanna Wilson is a fellow in adolescent medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; her email is deanna.wilson@jhmi.edu. Stephanie Sparrow is a University of Maryland clinical social worker; her email is ssparrow@umaryland.edu. And Jennifer Kirschner is director of the Baltimore Student Harm Reduction Coalition; her email is baltimorestudenthrc@gmail.com.

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