BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - There are few things that can free a person from the grips of a deadly drug overdose. One thing that can is a medicine that has become a vital tool for first responders and it is more accessible than ever, but some worry it is still not in the hands that need it most.
When naloxone was approved by the FDA in the 1970s, medical experts were quick to recognize its value. The drug sold under the brand name Narcan can instantly reverse an opioid overdose by blocking the brain's opioid receptors.
By the early 1980s, the World Health Organization designated it as an essential medication to have on hand.
Now, it is one of the most used medications in a paramedic's tool box.
"Some people call it a miracle drug," said EMS Spokesman Mike Chustz. "Narcan is something that when you use it, it has an almost instant effect. I've seen it save lives over and over."
Law enforcement and medical experts report the Baton Rouge Metro area is in the grips of an opioid epidemic, thanks to an increase in use of heroin and other narcotics. It's also led to a spike in deadly overdoses.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office first reported an increase in overdose deaths in 2013, and it's a trend found nationwide.
"Approximately 80 people a day are overdosing from some type of opioid, whether that's heroin, OxyContin, oxycodone, or the fentanyl. It's scary," said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Brad Byerley with the Baton Rouge DEA office.
For the DEA, Narcan is also becoming an essential tool for agents. Byerley explained that more and more agents are trained on how to administer the drug if they come across a victim. In some cases, Byerley said it is the agents that need saving.
According to Byerley, some of the newer synthetic opioids being found, like fentanyl, are so volatile they can be absorbed through the skin. The agent said there have been a few cases of officers being exposed accidentally, leading to a medical emergency.
As the number of overdoses rose in the metro area, EMS also reported a sharp increase in cases where Narcan was needed. In fact, EMS reports an 87 percent increase from 2013 to 2016.
From January 1 through October 26 in 2016, EMS administered 486 doses of naloxone. For that same time period in 2013, they administered only 260. That means hundreds of lives have been pulled back from the brink of an OD death, but some believe even more can be saved.
"We want Narcan to be available to everyone, everywhere at any time," said No Overdose Baton Rouge founder Logan Kinamore.
No Overdose Baton Rouge is a grassroots group whose goal is to provide harm reduction services for drug users. Among those services is distributing Narcan.
Over the past three years, state lawmakers have made Narcan increasingly more available. First responders and officers can use the lifesaving drug without a prescription. The DEA is sending their agents out with naloxone kits.
In an emergency, civilians can administer it without risk of liability, and while the drug is not available over the counter, a pharmacy can distribute it under a doctor's standing orders.
However, Kinamore believes the laws need to go a step further.
"You should be able to go to a pharmacy, and just ask your pharmacist to buy some Narcan over the counter," Kinamore said. "The people who are in the lives of people who use drugs are the first responders."
Chustz said one of the advantages to naloxone is that there's little chance of complications from the drug. If used on a patient who is not suffering an overdose, there's no effect at all. Patients who are given Narcan in the midst of an overdose will experience side effects similar to a withdrawal.
However, Chustz is quick to warn that the drug should not be considered a free pass for users. It is expensive and has to be administered quickly in order to be effective.
"A lot of things have to happen positively for you to survive. Someone has to discover you, someone has to call 911 or get you to an emergency room and they have to do it in a very, very timely fashion," Chustz said.
As far as addressing the larger opioid epidemic, lawmakers also created the Commission on Preventing Opioid Abuse which will work with state and community agencies to study the problem and make recommendations by February 2017.