The Drug Foundation is calling on the Government to urgently make it easier for New Zealanders to freely access a lifesaving opioid overdose reversal medication, so that the country is prepared in the face of a future fentanyl crisis.
Drug Foundation Executive Director, Sarah Helm, says that the Government needs to set up a scheme that circumvents the current Medsafe and Pharmac process, which is acting as a barrier for accessing naloxone and is putting New Zealanders at risk.
“The Government needs to act now and ensure funding and distribution of naloxone, so it gets into the hands of all first responders and people who use drugs,” Helm says.
“We can’t let the red tape of our health system be the reason people can’t access this lifesaving drug in a crisis. Australia has a take home scheme that has circumvented similar barriers, and now offers naloxone free without a prescription to anyone who might experience or witness an opioid overdose, following a successful pilot. We need the same to happen here.”
The call for more action comes off the back of the Drug Foundation applying to the Medicines Classifications Committee (MCC) for a rule change that would increase the availability and accessibility of naloxone.
In response, the MCC has recommended changes that will allow needle exchanges and some other health providers to distribute injectable naloxone packs without a prescription. Helm says that while this small shift is positive, it doesn’t go nearly as far as the Drug Foundation had hoped.
“It’s great that we’ve removed one tiny bit of red tape from the mountain that’s standing in the way of naloxone,” she says, “but this is not nearly enough.”
“This change won't help us get naloxone into the hands of the large group of people who are vulnerable to a fentanyl outbreak. We need the Government to step in now.”
NZ Needle Exchange Programme National Operations Manager, Philippa Jones, says while she is pleased that needle exchanges will be able to distribute naloxone, she would like to see more funding for it.
“We have national coverage and stigma-free relationships with clients to ensure this vital life-saving product gets to the people who need it most.”
On average there are 46 opioid overdose deaths in Aotearoa each year, but the Drug Foundation says the risk is far greater, with the possibility of fentanyl entering the drug supply as was seen in Wairarapa last month. Last year alone, an estimated 80,000 people died from opioid overdoses in the USA, which is in the grips of a fentanyl crisis.