An opioid reversal program has saved dozens of Canberrans. Now there are calls to roll it out to families across Australia

David Baxter has seen the effects of overdose on his own.

“I lived in a shared house with a guy whose boyfriend was a dealer, we had a lot of people coming around the place, using heroin and using ice in the house,” he said.

“There were quite a few occasions where I had to save people.”

Sir. Baxter used drugs for much of his adult life, and since breaking his own addiction, he has dedicated his career to helping relatives of drug users.

Mr. Baxter is the lead coach of the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimization and Advocacy’s (CAHMA) naloxone program.

The program is funded by the ACT government and provides family and friends of opioid users with the rapid reversal drug naloxone.

A hospital building seen from the other side of a busy road.
The ACT government is funding the naloxone program to help rescue those suffering from opioid overdoses.(ABC News: Ian Cutmore)

Naloxone works by blocking receptors to which the opioid would otherwise bind.

It was first tested in ACT in 2012, when 200 people were given sets of the medicine.

Within the first six months of the program, up to 40 people said they had used their set.

And in the 12 months to June 2021, more than 320 Canberran’s naloxone were brought home.

New research published by the Burnet Institute last week showed that making reversal medicine freely available across Australia and free of charge would save hundreds of lives.

It found that most opioid deaths in Australia involved prescription opioids – used by 3 million Australians.

The study showed that an upscaling of the naloxone program to include other states and reach 90 percent of the people who were prescribed medium and high opioids would save over 650 lives.

A spray with the words naloxone is depicted
Naloxone intranasal spray is used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.(ABC News: Antoinette Radford)

In Canberra, more than 70 people were presented at Canberra Hospital for opioid-related overdoses last year, and more than 50 people had shown up by October this year.

Sir. Baxter said there was a high demand for people to attend the program he runs, but attendees were predominantly from the northern part of Canberra.

“One of the problems with Canberra’s not having such a large population, but spreading over a large area … we have a lot more customers from the inner north and the Belcon than we have from, for example, Weston Creek and Tuggeranong, ” he said.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 99.5 per cent of drug-induced deaths involved an opioid drug in 2019.

But Mr Baxter said it was not just heroin users who died of overdoses.

‘It is often at home where people find them overdose’

A bald man with a gray beard speaks at a microphone
Tony Trimingham is the CEO of the organization Family Drug Support. (Delivered)

For Tony Trimingham, CEO and founder of Family Drug Support Australia, the naloxone program is a welcome way to empower relatives of drug users.

Sir. Trimingham lost his son, Damien, to an overdose of heroin and has since dedicated his life to helping others in a similar situation.

“The fact that it’s now being distributed across Australia, and especially now in ACT – I’m really in favor of that,” he said.

He said many family members felt helpless when they had a loved one who was experiencing addiction, and educating families could help prevent overdose-related deaths.

“A lot of people use drugs at home, and it is often at home where people find them overdosed or unconscious, and if they have naloxone on hand, then there is a very good chance that the person will be rescued,” he said.

ANU associate professor Anna Olsen also repeated these feelings.

She said other states in Australia with naloxone programs focused on opioid users instead of the users’ friends and family, and praised CAHMA’s focus.

“The inclusion of family members can be really helpful and empowering for both the person and their family members,” she said.

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