The US surgeon general issued an advisory Thursday recommending that more Americans carry the opioid overdose-reversing drug, naloxone.
The drug, commonly known as Narcan, can very quickly restore normal breathing in someone suspected of overdosing on opioids, including heroin and prescription pain medications.
Naloxone temporarily reverses the effects of opioid overdose: slowed or stopped breathing
It is used by first responders called to cases of opioid overdose
Dr. Jerome Adams emphasized that "knowing how to use naloxone and keeping it within reach can save a life." To make his point, Adams relied on a rarely used tool: the surgeon general's advisory. The last such advisory was issued more than a decade ago and focused on drinking during pregnancy.
Adams noted that the number of overdose deaths from prescription and illicit opioids doubled in recent years: from 21,089 deaths across the nation in 2010 to 42,249 in 2016.
America's top doctor attributed this "steep increase" to several contributing factors, including "the rapid proliferation of illicitly made fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids" and "an increasing number of individuals receiving higher doses of prescription opioids for long-term management of chronic pain."
"Research shows that when naloxone and overdose education are available to community members, overdose deaths decrease in those communities," Adams said. Naloxone is used by police officers, first responders and emergency medical techs to reverse opioid overdoses. Adams added that increasing both the availability of naloxone and effective treatment is critical to ending the opioid epidemic.
Speaking at the National Prescription Drug Abuse & Heroin Summit in Atlanta on Thursday morning, Adams addressed the potential "moral conflict" felt by some people who believe that providing naloxone "doesn't make a difference," since many people with drug addictions will just "go on and misuse substances again."
"Well, that would be like me saying 'I'm not gonna go do surgery on this trauma patient because they're just gonna go out and speed again,' " he said.
Adams noted that in most states, people who are or who know someone at risk for opioid overdose can get trained to use naloxone properly and also may receive naloxone by "standing order" -- without a prescription -- from pharmacies or some community-based programs.
"No mother should have to bury their child ,and especially not when there's a life-saving medication that virtually anyone can access," Adams said. "It is for this reason that I am issuing the first Surgeon General's Advisory in 13 years."