International Overdose Awareness Day is Aug. 31, a day for mourning and activism. Our nation has finally become aware of the scope of this epidemic. Overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, a talking point for presidential candidates and President Obama himself. In New York City, we have been hit particularly hard by the opioid overdose crisis. Last month, the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) released their 2015 drug overdose mortality data showing a 66 percent increase in overdose mortality rate, with a 51 percent increase in deaths among Latinos. Now is the time to move beyond awareness to action.
Through education, advocacy, and training, people who use drugs and their loved ones can learn to prevent overdoses, respond to overdoses they witness, and be provided with options for addressing the harms associated with drug use. New York State has done great work to increase access to naloxone with distribution through community based programs, pharmacies, nurses, and with increased access for uniformed first responders. Naloxone, a medication to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, is safe and easy to use and has already saved thousands of lives.
Naloxone is just one of the many harm reduction tools to prevent overdose deaths. Harm reduction is a set of practical strategies aimed at reducing the negative consequences associated with drug use. Research has demonstrated that methadone and buprenorphine, the gold standard for treating opioid use disorders, protects against fatal overdose and extends the life of people in treatment. Treatment with methadone or buprenorphine also reduces other harms associated with injecting drug use such as HIV and hepatitis C, and the stabilizing effect of the medication assists people address other pressing issues such as housing and employment.
While naloxone, methadone and buprenorphine are all available in NYC, we urgently need to scale up access in order to reverse the overdose epidemic and to reach the people who are not currently engaged in care. Although New York is generally supportive of harm reduction services, there is much more that can be done. Research has also demonstrated that modifying the environment in which drugs are used is critical for preventing overdose fatalities. Supervised injection facilities (SIFs) have been successful in several countries but not yet adopted in NYC. SIFs provide a safe environment where people can consume drugs, as an alternative to using in our public parks, restaurant bathrooms, or libraries. SIFs have decades of proven success in reducing drug-related harms, and there has not been a single death due to overdose at any one of these facilities.
Advocates with the SIF NYC coalition have been calling on New York City to establish SIFs as part of a comprehensive approach to ending the overdose crisis. In the past decade we have lost over 7,000 lives to drug overdose in New York and last year was the worst year yet. SIFs have proven effective in nearly 100 sites around the world. It’s now time for our city to take swift action and commit to establishing SIFs to protect New Yorkers’ health and safety.
Mike Selick is the Hepatitis C Program Coordinator for the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national advocacy and capacity-building organization that promotes the health and dignity of individuals and communities impacted by drug use. You can follow Mike on twitter @mes448 and the Harm Reduction Coalition @HarmReduction.