Last year, the number of prescriptions for the opioid reversal drug naloxone doubled, and some experts say the prevalence of the drug should be credited with overdose rates that appear to be slightly reduced for the first time in decades.
However, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released this week found that only one dose of naloxone is given out per 69 high-dose opioids prescriptions.
Experts including the CDC’s principal deputy director, Dr. Anne Schuchat, said that the data shows there is still a lot of improvement when it comes to accessing naloxone.
“We may never get to 1-to-1… but we think that ratio of 1-to-70 is too low,” she told STAT News.
Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, agreed. “Thousands of Americans are alive today thanks to the use of naloxone… but today’s CDC report is a reminder that there is much more all of us need to do to save lives,” he said in a statement.
The report found that naloxone has become much more common. In 2012, just 1,282 prescriptions for the drug were written, compared to 556,847 in 2018. Psychiatrists, addiction specialists, and pediatricians prescribed naloxone at the highest rates—but alarmingly, pain specialists and primary care doctors had among the lowest naloxone prescription rates. Those specialties prescribed just 1.3 doses of naloxone per 100 prescriptions for high-dose opioids.
The report, entitled “Still Not Enough Naloxone Where It’s Most Needed,” also found vast regional differences, with some counties having 25% more naloxone prescriptions than others. Naloxone was prescribed most often in small cities and in the south. It was prescribed the least in the Midwest and in rural areas.
Schuchat said that is concerning, because naloxone can be particularly important when help from emergency medical technicians is far away. “In rural areas, it may take a long time for an ambulance to get there,” she said.
Some states, including Virginia and Arizona, require that naloxone be prescribed when someone is given a high-dose opioid prescription. In those areas, the prescription rate for the opioid overdose reversal drug is higher, the report found.
Prescription rates were also higher in areas that have above-average overdose rates. This suggested to CDC researchers that an awareness of the dangers of opioids leads to more people seeking naloxone.
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