Delegates to the 55th session of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) in Vienna unanimously approved a resolution to promote measures to prevent drug overdose deaths last Friday. The resolution calls on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international organizations to work with individual countries to address and reduce drug overdoses. Crucially, the resolution included mention of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can effectively reverse opiate overdoses and which does not carry any danger of abuse.
"Every life is worth saving," said Dasha Ocheret, policy and advocacy program manager for the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network. "Everyone knows someone who has died from an overdose. It's thrilling that the United Nations recognizes this is a problem to be taken seriously and something can be done."
"This represents a critical step towards improving global public health," said Donald McPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver. "The global overdose epidemic can be addressed with meaningful, evidence-based interventions to reduce the immediate potential harms associated with opioid use, and prevent unnecessary death. It is heartening to witness CND member countries take this step together to save lives."
The biggest risk of fatal overdose is around opiates and opioid pain medications. According to the UNODC, "the ingestion of opioids accounts for nearly half of the global drug-related deaths, and the majority of deaths could have been prevented." The UNODC puts the number of user of opium derivatives, both medical and non-medical, at around 21 million worldwide.
Opioid overdose deaths are generally preventable for three reasons: The deaths occur gradually after drug use, there are typically other people present, and the effects of overdose can be reversed with naloxone, also known under its brand name, Narcan.
In some countries, including some states in the US, there are ongoing programs to offer naloxone to drug users, their friends, and family members. Last fall, Massachusetts announced its 1,000th overdose reversal using naloxone. New Mexico has also been a pioneer in expanding the use of naloxone.
"Naloxone is a safe and effective medication that has been available for more than forty years," said Sharon Stancliff of the New York City-based Harm Reduction Coalition. "It's exciting that the UN has officially recognized the importance of making this life-saving medication more widely available. It is vital that it is made accessible to people who need it, both inside the hospital setting and outside, through emergency services and to family members of opioid users."