Answering the Epidemic

Illustration by Abby Summers

Illustration by Abby Summers

Rachael Beardsley

Drug overdose rates rose to show nearly 5,000 deaths in Ohio during 2017, according to the Ohio Department of Health’s 2017 Ohio Drug Overdose Data, and opioids ranked among the top five abused drugs. As a result, students on Ohio campuses and across the country are demanding access to naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose.

Naloxone, often referred to by the brand name Narcan, treats opioid overdoses by blocking the receptors in the brain that interact with the addictive drugs. In doing so, it restores a person’s regular breathing, which may have been shallow or nonexistent during the overdose.

“Whenever we have patients come through the emergency room now, we’re giving them more than one dose quite often to get enough to reverse the effects,” says Sherleena Buchman, a professor in the College of Health Sciences and Professions and a practicing nurse. “...They get enough of the dose and then they’re totally awake and able to interact.”

Patients often need more than one dose because the effects of Narcan are not permanent. Narcan does not cure an overdose; it simply halts overdose symptoms for a period of time. However, that window of time can be crucial for the patient until first responders arrive.

“Having [Narcan] available can save that life while we’re waiting for responders to get here,” Buchman says. “We live in a rural area, so our response time could be delayed.”

Narcan has become increasingly prevalent as the opioid epidemic worsens. Emergency rooms are stocked. Members of Ohio State Highway Patrol carry Narcan, and community members can also be trained to administer it. In Athens County, Project DAWN (Death Avoided With Naloxone) offers community members and students free two-dose packages of nasal spray Narcan once they’ve completed training.

“Anybody who feels like they need to carry Narcan with them all the time can go and get trained,” Buchman says.

Narcan can be ordered at CVS and students can request it through Hudson Health, but the same two-dose package will cost around $130. Though certain types of insurance may decrease the cost, paying for Narcan is not an option for many people.

Ohio University faculty and staff are addressing the opioid epidemic in other ways. Last spring, President Nellis created the Ohio University Opioid Task Force, which reviews the university’s current efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. The College of Health Sciences and Professions has also created Athens HOPE (Halting Opioid Abuse through Prevention and Education) in an effort to educate the community about opioid abuse and addiction.

“[Athens HOPE] is a collection of over 60 individuals and 25 to 30 different community organizations and representatives from different colleges at the university,” says Rebecca Miller, founder of Athens HOPE.

Miller says the many people working to address the opioid crisis, both inside and outside the university, all have the same mission of assisting those in need and halting the epidemic.

“We’re going about it in different ways, and it’s exciting that there’s so much passion and dedication and energy behind it,” Miller says. “I’m glad that there are so many people that are invested and involved in these efforts.”

OU has addiction treatment services students are often referred to if they have drug- or alcohol-related problems. The OU Police Department also carries Narcan. Other universities, however, have taken Narcan availability a few steps farther.

The University of Texas, for example, has trained all resident assistants (RAs) to administer Narcan to students, and Ohio State University’s Student Government recently passed a resolution to have all residence hall staff trained and equipped with Narcan. There has been discussion about training the RAs at OU, Miller says, but no plans are currently in place.

Buchman echos Miller’s sentiments when she says that the resources available to the community are valuable and best used when all organizations work together toward the same end goal.

“I think that’s the big mystery of the whole opioid crisis: How can we stop it as a team and how can we collaborate?” she says. “That’s where we are, in the steps of looking for collaborative partners.”

Students on other campuses have mobilized to demand free Narcan for students, faculty, staff and community members. One organization, Naloxone on Campus, is “a coalition of student advocates holding their colleges and universities accountable for access to life-saving overdose medication.” Naloxone on Campus circulates literature and other materials to different campuses through student advocates, who do programming on their individual campuses.

“We try not to grandstand because every college is different, and we don’t like to tell the representatives what to do so much, but we do have a lot of different materials and resources that we come up with,” says Charlie Rinehart-Jones, founder of Naloxone on Campus and student at Oberlin College in northern Ohio. “...We talk to them and help them articulate why there might be different challenges.”

Rinehart-Jones says Naloxone on Campus launched in July and now has 17 advocates on campuses in nine different states, including Oberlin and Kenyon colleges in Ohio. Currently, there are no advocates on campus at OU.

Some people are worried about the obsession surrounding Narcan, Buchman says. She has heard people say that Narcan is like a Band-Aid, offering a temporary solution and ignoring the larger problem of addiction. But, she says, the task forces and other organizations can address the larger problem. In the meantime, Narcan will save lives that would have otherwise been lost.

“You have to have that Band-Aid because if you don’t, you’re losing lives, and every life matters,” Buchman says. “That’s why we use [Narcan] as an intervention to save a life for right now. That life, for right now, will still be here tomorrow. We’ll look for a bigger solution for tomorrow.”