Yesterday, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved Narcan, the first nasal spray version of naloxone hydrochloride – a drug that can stop or reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Previously, naloxone had only been approved in injectable forms. While some injectable versions can be used by lay people, adding a user-friendly, safe nasal spray version expands the treatment options available to patients, family members, first responders, and communities across the country that are working to reverse the epidemic of prescription opioid and heroin overdoses.
The approval of Narcan fits into our broader strategy to combat opioid overdose, dependence and deaths, which HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell announced earlier this year. Under this effort, we have intensified efforts across the federal government to take on what is now the leading cause of injury deaths in the U.S. – drug overdose fatalities, which are largely fueled by prescription opioid and heroin overdoses.
To fight this epidemic, we are focusing on three key areas: improving opioid prescribing practices, expanding the use of medication-assisted treatment for people who are addicted, and increasing the use of naloxone. We have taken a number of steps to advance actions in all three areas. In addition to the Narcan approval, HHS announced, in September, $1.8 million to purchase naloxone in rural communities and train healthcare professionals and first responders in its use.
The opioid epidemic touches all of us. In my home state of Massachusetts, there was a 33 percent increase in deaths from opioid overdoses between 2012 and 2014, and in Secretary Burwell’s West Virginia, the state has the highest drug overdose death rate in the country.
These statistics reflect what we’re seeing across America, in communities large and small and among people from all walks of life - a rising tide of opioid abuse and overdose. In 2012, there were 259 million opioid prescriptions written in the U.S. - enough for every adult in our country to have a bottle.
Yesterday’s Narcan approval isn’t a cure-all. Naloxone doesn’t solve the problem of opioid addiction, but it can reduce the devastating harms – harm to the individuals who overdose, but also for the families and friends who are left behind in these tragedies.
It’s cliché to say that a problem has no silver bullet, but combating opioid abuse and curbing related deaths is a complex challenge. It’s a top priority for President Obama and Secretary Burwell, but it’s going to take cooperation and effort across the private and public sectors to reverse the trends we’re seeing and to save more lives. Yesterday’s Narcan approval is a strong example of government and industry working together to address this public health crisis. Both FDA and our National Institute on Drug Abuse were instrumental in quickly bringing this product to market. We’re making progress – as the Narcan approval shows - but there is much more work to do.
Learn more about the prescription drug and heroin overdose epidemic at http://www.hhs.gov/opioids
Richard Frank is the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. This blog is cross posted from http://www.hhs.gov/blog/2015/11/19/hhs-takes-another-step-in-our-effort-to-combat-opioid-deaths.html