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In Wilkes County, N.C., an Appalachian area with an alarmingly high rate of prescription drug deaths, a nonprofit organization called Project Lazarus has taken a slightly different approach: It persuaded doctors to prescribe naloxone in tandem with painkillers to certain patients. The practice, along with an all-out education campaign, has been credited by the organization with reducing overdose deaths 69 percent between 2009 and 2011.
Fred Wells Brason II, chief executive of Project Lazarus, said he had never heard of naloxone when the group began to develop its overdose prevention plan.
"Then I found out it was used in emergency rooms to reverse opiate overdoses," he recalled. "My first question was, `Well, that's great, but not one person from Wilkes County who overdoses made it that far. They were all found at home dead.'"
William Breault, a neighborhood activist in Worcester, Mass., opposed the distribution site set up in his city.
"I just feel that the focus and our dollars should be getting people off drugs, into recovery and treatment," he said. "This policy is one of accommodation to anti-social behavior. Absolutely, it sends a false message that this is the silver bullet, this will take care of you if you overdose."
Police in Quincy, Mass., began carrying naloxone in late 2010, courtesy of the state, after grappling with one of the highest non-fatal overdose rates in Massachusetts. Since then, officers have used it to reverse 69 overdoses.
Patrolman Michael Brandolini said he once saved two people in a single day: a man whose mother found him unconscious in his bedroom, and a man lying in a snowbank.
"I think it's fine in the hands of first responders -- police, fire and paramedics," Brandolini said. "Personally, I have reservations about giving it to the addicts themselves. I think it may give them a false sense of security."
He said he worries addicts will think they can administer naloxone to themselves, when it is almost always given by someone else -- a friend or loved one -- because the drug user loses consciousness.
The Food and Drug Administration, together with the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the CDC, held a workshop earlier this month to gather public opinion on making naloxone more widely available.
Among those testifying were advocates for distribution programs, those who believe the antidote should be made available over the counter, and those opposed to its use by anyone but doctors and emergency workers.
In Massachusetts, Wohlen said he was angry rather than grateful when he woke up that night two years ago, his high suddenly gone, replaced by withdrawal symptoms that he described as feeling like a terrible case of the flu.
Wohlen was out on bail for robbing a fast-food restaurant when he overdosed, and was sent back to prison because of his drug use. Now serving five to seven years behind bars in Massachusetts, the 28-year-old said in a recent prison interview that he is clean and has signed up for a prison training program to learn the heating and ventilation trade.
He said the naloxone that his mother used made it possible: "I might be dead if she hadn't done it."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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