A drug-disposal pouch from a painkiller company that's providing 25,000 such bags to Alaska. (Photo courtesy Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals)

A drug-disposal pouch from a painkiller company that’s providing 25,000 such bags to Alaska. (Photo courtesy Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals)

Naloxone, sold under the brand name Narcan, can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Lawmakers have been aiding its distribution, making it legal for pharmacies to sell the Narcan over-the-counter. In Sitka this Saturday , a state health official will be training bystanders on how to use the lifesaving drug themselves.

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When someone overdoses on heroin or prescription painkillers, their breath starts to slow and can even stop. It’s a critical window of time, where a dose of Narcan can make all the difference. Andy Jacobs, who oversees the state’s Health Emergency Response Operations, is working to put the nasal spray in the hands of Alaskans. “It’s almost like watching someone come awake from the dead. It’s pretty amazing. This stuff can work instantly, maybe takes up to 30 seconds to a minute,” he said. With the overdose effects temporarily reversed, bystanders are given extra time to call 911.

Jacobs is offering a free course on Saturday (04-08-17) about how to recognize the signs of an overdose and safely administer Narcan. He’ll bring over 200 of the nasal spray kits to Sitka and wants to distribute every single one — at no cost.

The program is part of a statewide effort to distribute 3,500 kits, paid for with $4.2 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Social Services. Jacobs also aims to create a network of regional distribution centers in town that have Narcan on hand, like pharmacies, hospitals, local counseling services, and emergency responders.

“Every person who somehow touches a person -who is either in recovery or actively using or a concerned loved one – there will be all those areas and all those points of intersection that somebody can go to to get the kits,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs is also handing out special bags that allow patients to safely dispose of unwanted or expired medication. So, rather than throw pills out in the trash, where they can be dug up and abused, the drugs are neutralized on the spot. He wants Alaskans to know that the opioid epidemic affects everyone, not just addicts. “If you don’t need those medications in your cabinet, clear them out. A lot of times, people who are actively using illicit drugs like heroin, they started out with prescription medication,” he said.

Overdosing on prescription painkillers is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States and in Alaska, the death rate is twice as high. Heroin overdose deaths are also on the rise. To stem this, Jacobs wants to reduce the stigma. All are welcome at this workshop and those who attend can expect a judgement-free zone.

“People don’t chose to be addicted to drugs. They don’t want to be addicted to drugs. We self-medicate and there’s a reason for it. We go through hardships in life. We have pains in our body. We don’t chose it. It’s a chronic disease, but a chronic disease that can be treated,” he said.

The Narcan “Train the Trainer” workshop will be on Saturday at 12 p.m. in Harrigan Centennial Hall. It’s part of an annual EMS symposium, hosted by the Southeast Region Emergency Medical Services.