District aims to tackle opioid epidemic

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An ambulance rushes to MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. (Brian Kapur/The Current/April 2017)

The District is launching a multi-pronged effort to combat opioid overdoses, including the distribution of emergency treatments, enhanced addiction treatment, greater prevention efforts and research of the drugs that affect D.C. residents, according to a news release.

“We must work together to curb this growing epidemic and treat it like the public health issue that it is,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said in the release.

This program includes distribution of 2,500 additional “life-saving” naloxone kits — a potent opioid antagonist that reverses the effects of an overdose, the release says. Already this year, the city has disseminated 1,000 such kits, which have saved the lives of 290 residents.

Naloxone, a nasal spray, is U.S. Food and Drug Administration-approved for the emergency treatment of overdoses. The health department will distribute the kits through two nonprofits: the Family Medical Counseling Service Inc. and Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive.

The District also plans to expand medication-assisted treatment, by combining counseling with medicine to combat drug addiction. The D.C. Department of Health intends to promote access to medication by training 100 primary care providers in prescribing Suboxone, a medication used to reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings.

Meanwhile, the Department of Behavioral Health received a two-year, $2 million federal grant to promote prevention and recovery efforts. Plans will focus on the city’s most at-risk demographic — African-American male heroin users over 40.

Another facet of the opioid treatment strategy is a coordinated program between the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the Department of Forensic Sciences involving the analysis of syringes at the scenes of suspected opioid overdose deaths. This plan will help officials identify new synthetic drugs being advertised as heroin.

“Because the designer drugs that are flooding our community are changing day-to-day and week-to-week, we must match our level of forensic testing to the severity of these substances,” chief medical examiner Roger Mitchell Jr. said in the release.