GENEVA - The World Health Organization says a drug that can reverse the harmful effects of drug overdose should be made more widely available.  WHO says a prescription drug called naloxone can save the lives of people who overdose on heroin and other opioids.  

Opioids derived from the opium poppy are the most addictive substances in common usage.  The World Health Organzation estimates around 69,000 people around the world die every year from opioid overdose.  WHO says among people who inject drugs, opioid overdose is the second most common cause of death after HIV/AIDS.

Deaths among people who overdose from a heroin injection tend to grab most of the attention.  But, Nicolas Clark, a Medical Officer, in WHO's department of Management of Substance Abuse says overdoses from prescription opioids are increasing and are just as lethal.  

He says this is borne out in studies in the United States, where there has been a large increase in prescription opioids in the last 10 years.

“The most recent data available has more than 16,000 prescription opioid deaths and less than 4,000 heroin overdose deaths…And the prescription opioids are the opioids that are used in the treatment of chronic pain typically.  So, they are not the opioids that are used in the treatment of heroin dependence.  So, there has been in the U.S. and other countries an enormous increase in the use of opioids as a treatment approach to chronic, non-cancer pain.  Chronic lower back pain, for example is one of the most common reasons for seeking medical assistance,” said Clark.

Dr. Clark notes there has been a 10-fold increase in deaths due to prescription opioids in the United States over the last 10 years.  

WHO says effective treatments for opioid dependence are available, yet only 10 percent of people who need such treatment are receiving it.  The UN health agency says death following opioid overdose is preventable if the person receives basic life support and the timely administration of an inexpensive medication called naloxone.

Dr. Clark says naloxone acts as an antidote, which can completely reverse the effects of opioid overdose and prevent deaths.  He says new WHO guidelines call for the wider use of this medication.  

“Naloxone is cheap, but it is limited really to emergency departments and some ambulance systems at the moment.  So, the question that we addressed in these guidelines is should this antidote to heroin overdose be more widely available-should it be available to people who are likely to come across people who have overdosed, to other drug users, to family members, partners, people who work with drug users-social workers, police and so on," he said.

Dr. Clark says WHO recommends that naloxone be more readily available to those people who are likely to witness an overdose.  He notes most overdoses are witnessed while the person is still alive.

He says naloxone, which costs about $2 a dose, works within two to three minutes.  He adds this medication has virtually no effect in people who have not taken opioids, so there would be no harmful consequences if a misdiagnosis were made.