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Training on heroin antidote becomes part of city’s drug court

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner, demonstrates administering a dose of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone on her assistant, Katherine Warren. (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner, demonstrates administering a dose of the opioid overdose antidote naloxone on her assistant Katherine Warren.
 (The Daily Record / Heather Cobun)

Drug Treatment Court participants in Baltimore city received a potentially life-saving training in a matter of minutes Thursday morning as a part of a new program from the health department targeting people most at risk for an opioid overdose.

“We’re teaching them there is something very simple they can do and they can do it as soon as today,” said Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen.

Wen trained approximately 30 participants in the Baltimore City Adult Drug Treatment Court program to use naloxone, an antidote for overdoses of opioids such as heroin and oxycodone.

City health officials say the jurisdiction is the first in Maryland to mandate naloxone training for drug court participants.

“It’s really critical to get this into the hands of people who are at risk themselves or may be around other people who may overdose,” Wen said.

Drug court participants also received a prescription for a naloxone kit, according to Wen, who also demonstrated how the kit is used. Naloxone is administered through the nostrils, like a nasal spray.

Individuals with Medicare or Medicaid can get a naloxone prescription filled for $1, according to Wen. Training to administer naloxone is available through the health department.

Baltimore police officers are also being trained to administer naloxone, Wen added.

“The process of giving it isn’t onerous,” said retired Baltimore City Circuit Judge Ellen Heller, one of the judges who presides over drug court.

Attitudes toward addiction have changed since drug court started, according to Heller, who has worked with the city’s drug court since 2003.

“I think the difference is we are focusing on the problem in a different way,” she said.

Public health crisis

By raising awareness about the dangers of overdoses, Heller said she hopes educating people about naloxone will save lives.

Wen said misconceptions exist about naloxone, including the belief that it encourages drug use because it can revive someone who overdoses.

“We would never tell someone who is dying of a heart attack, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t treat you today, this is your fault,'” she said.

Reviving someone with naloxone treats the immediate emergency, according to Heller, but the process of recovering from drug addiction is much more complex. Heller called addiction and overdoses a public health crisis facing the city.

Baltimore saw 303 heroin overdose deaths in 2014, according to a news release from the health department, a 19 percent increase from 2013.

Wen said training drug court participants — possibly on a monthly basis — is part of a larger initiative to attack the city’s epidemic of heroin and opioid addiction.

“Addiction is a chronic disease,” Wen said, comparing it to diabetes or heart disease.

Wen said her eventual goal is to have every willing person in Baltimore City trained on naloxone use.

The website, run by the health department, explains how to spot an overdose, how to administer naloxone and has a calendar of trainings and opportunities to learn more about naloxone.

In July, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s Heroin Treatment and Prevention Task Force called for 10 steps to attack the heroin and opioid problem in the city, including creating a “treatment on demand” facility for substance abusers. Widespread dissemination of naloxone was another one of the recommendations.