Carter: Opioid death decline not whole story

Imagine if a medication existed for heart disease or lung cancer, one that allowed us to be brought back from the dead, not just once but multiple times, from these ailments. Would there be any incentive to change our unhealthy eating habits or to quit smoking?

Such a miracle does exist for people who nearly die after an overdose on heroin or prescription opioids. The opioid antidote is called naloxone, or by its name brand, Narcon. When injected, naloxone can reverse the effects of an overdose by attaching to brain receptors that receive heroin and other opioids.


In many ways, it is a miracle drug, essentially raising someone from the dead. There are no known health risks and minimal side effects. It cannot make you high and therefore can't be abused. While it will not resuscitate someone who has overdosed on something other than opioids, like benzodiazepines or cocaine, no harm can occur from administering naloxone. An individual also cannot develop a tolerance for naloxone, so it can be used in any overdose situation, no matter how many times the individual has overdosed previously.

Therein lies the rub.

Addiction — whether to greasy food, cigarettes or heroin — is incredibly powerful, although admittedly, withdrawal from McDonald's or Marlboro's isn't nearly as painful as doing so from opioids.

Point is, dire consequences are sometimes the only thing that can change behavior. For some opioid abusers, naloxone coupled with the pain of withdrawal enables them to use the drugs again and again without the fear of death.

Overdose deaths caused by heroin and prescription opioid drugs are down in Carroll County through the first half of 2016, according to the latest data from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

While that's a good thing, a more troubling number is the 152 nonfatal overdoses — 93 from heroin and 59 from prescription opioids — through August reported by the Carroll County Sheriff's Office. That's way up from 86 nonfatal overdoses the first eight months of 2016 and 105 during that same time frame in 2014.

Deaths are likely down while total overdoses are up because more people — from emergency medical personnel; law enforcement; health professionals; and civilians, including users and their families — have been armed with naloxone.

Having the antidote readily available has saved countless lives in Carroll County, Maryland and the country, and that shouldn't be understated. Some who have been revived by naloxone have chosen to get help to fight their addiction. The antidote gives someone a chance at getting treatment they need and becoming stable; a chance that doesn't exist if they die.

Far too many, however, are using again soon after being brought back from death's door. Anecdotally, we've heard stories of people being revived by naloxone two, three or more times only to go right back to using.

In part, that's because the withdrawal symptoms are so intense these individuals feel like they have no other choice. Other people just don't want to get help.

There should be little solace taken in Carroll bucking the statewide trend of increases in heroin and opioid overdose deaths from a year ago when total overdoses are way up. Rather a greater resolve to do more to tackle this epidemic that not even a miracle drug can cure is needed.

The best way to fight back against heroin and opioids is to continue educating parents and children about this scourge, and for those who have overdosed and lived to tell the tale to do exactly that, sharing their stories to hopefully "scare straight" our youth before they ever try these dangerous substances.

In that regard, it's worth applauding some of the proactive measures county health and law enforcement officials have taken to get in front of this problem ahead of neighboring jurisdictions and our state. Those efforts, and new ones to reach even more people, must continue if Carroll County wants to not only eradicate overdose deaths but nonfatal overdoses as well.

Wayne Carter is the editor of the Carroll County Times. Reach him at