COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio is urging drug users’ relatives and friends and other members of the public to know the signs of an overdose and obtain an antidote as part of a six-month awareness campaign launching Monday.
The effort targets 15 counties hit hard by overdose deaths related to fentanyl. The synthetic painkiller can be laced with heroin or disguised to look like less powerful painkillers, and its prescription form used to treat chronic pain is far more potent than heroin.
The Ohio Department of Health is encouraging drug users’ loved ones to get the overdose antidote naloxone, which can be administered before emergency responders arrive. The state has taken other steps to expand naloxone availability, but this effort is aimed at people who might be shoulder to shoulder with those at risk of overdosing.
“I think we’ve got to get all hands on deck. We’ve got to do everything we can to help curb this epidemic,” said Travis Bornstein, whose 23-year-old son died of a fentanyl overdose in 2014.
The resident of Uniontown in northeastern Ohio said naloxone isn’t a fix-all but is a step in tackling a much larger problem. His family is trying to help others struggling with addiction through a new nonprofit organization, Breaking Barriers-Hope is Alive.
Even if naloxone is on hand, it’s important that someone call 911 immediately if they see signs of an opioid overdose — paleness, bluish lips or nails, vomiting, or slow breathing, for example — because fentanyl is so toxic that multiple doses of the antidote might be required, Dr. Mary DiOrio, the health department’s medical director.
Naloxone — often known by the brand name Narcan — isn’t harmful if administered to someone who didn’t actually overdose.
“We want to make sure that people are aware of this medication so that if they do have a family member or close friend that has an addiction, that they can seek out getting naloxone to have on hand should they need to use it,” DiOrio said.
The new awareness campaign builds on intervention guidance in a March report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose scientists visited Ohio last year after the state requested help to understand the growing overdose problem.
The campaign, done in collaboration with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, includes 36 billboards, a radio message and mobile and digital advertising for smartphone and website users. The ads direct viewers to a state website providing information about community programs and pharmacies that offer naloxone kits without a prescription.
The state is spending $200,000 on the campaign, plus another $90,000 to increase the amount of naloxone that counties can purchase, Health Department spokeswoman Melanie Amato said. The targeted areas, which include most of Ohio’s largest cities, are Butler, Clark, Clermont, Cuyahoga, Franklin, Hamilton, Lorain, Lucas, Marion, Montgomery, Ross, Scioto, Stark, Summit and Warren counties.
They accounted for 80 percent of Ohio’s roughly 500 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in 2014, the most recent full year for which the department has data. That year marked a sharp increase in fentanyl-related deaths, up from 84 in 2013, according to ODH.
Bornstein, whose son became addicted to painkillers after two surgeries, said he considers overprescribing of opiates as the driving factor in that increase.
The state has tried to tackle the problem from that side, too, with several rounds of guidance on prescribing, DiOrio said. The most recent guidelines, announced in January, said people with short-term pain from injuries or surgery should get alternatives to prescription painkillers whenever possible and get only the minimum amounts if absolutely needed.
The state is seeing signs that the guidance is making a difference, with fewer opiod doses and fewer high-dosage amounts prescribed, DiOrio said.