Stigma hinders overdose medicine use

La Trobe University researchers have found that stigma related to illicit drug use is preventing some people from accessing life-saving overdose medicine, naloxone.

La Trobe Professor Suzanne Fraser said naloxone is proven to reverse the effects of an overdose, yet many people are either unaware of how to obtain it or too ashamed or embarrassed to access it due to stigma related to drug use, addiction and overdose.

Professor Fraser led an Australian Research Council-funded research project to investigate why naloxone - despite being available in many pharmacies without a prescription, from GPs or alcohol and drug services - is not being accessed as much as it could. The researchers interviewed 46 people who take opioids in Victoria and New South Wales, gathering stories of those who have used the medicine to save another’s life.

“Many people we interviewed were keen to know about naloxone, and access it, but were concerned about confidentiality when speaking to pharmacists, or didn’t want to bring it up with their GP in case it affected their relationship in the future,” Professor Fraser said.

“We need to rethink our social attitudes to opioid consumption and overdose if naloxone programs are to fully achieve their life-saving potential,” she said.

Experiences and stories collected through the research are shared on Overdoselifesavers.org, launched today at the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and Other Drugs conference in Hobart.

They include the account of “Andrew”, a homeless man in his early 40s who has revived several people from overdose, and who told researchers: “I carry naloxone in my backpack 24/7. Everyone knows I’ve got it, so if I’m near or I’m in a group at the time of an overdose, it’s there. Mates don’t have to die any more. We can do something about it. I’m over losing my mates.”

Overdoselifesavers.org website advocate, human rights campaigner and former Socceroo, Craig Foster spoke passionately about the need for the site.

“At present we’re facing unprecedentedly high rates of fatal overdose among people who consume opioids. These deaths cut short valuable lives and leave behind devastated families and friends, from the loss,” he said.

Professor Fraser said members of the wider community are unaware people like Andrew, and others featured on the website, routinely save the lives of others.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2018 prescription drugs contributed to the deaths of 794 Australians and illegal opioids such as heroin caused 438 deaths.

Professor Fraser hopes Overdoselifesavers.org will help anyone affected by overdose understand the importance and accessibility of naloxone.

Media Contact: Kathryn Powley | k.powley@latrobe.edu.au | 9479 3491 | 0456 764 371

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