The Naloxone Revolution

August 30, 2013

Posted by Garcia Shi

Garcia Shi (Slate), Policy Manager of Asia Action on Harm Reduction project, AIDS Care China

Overdose is one of the most frequent causes of deaths among injecting drug users living with HIV in China. There are close links between HIV and overdose and overdose prevention programmes help to strengthen HIV programmes and prevent the spread of HIV among people who inject drugs.

Tomorrow, 31st August, is International Overdose Awareness Day where we acknowledge the lives lost to preventable overdoses and the suffering this has caused. Many people who inject drugs die from overdose simply because they have no access to the overdose prevention drug Naloxone. To change this, we need a Naloxone Revolution.

Naloxone is available in China only as a prescription drug. We hope that the government will allow community-based organisations to distribute Naloxone among communities of people who inject drugs. Improving access to this life-saving medication is a way of both respecting lives and creating chances for people who use drugs.

Xiao Bin’s Story

Xiao Bin was born in a small city in Yunnan and is now in her thirties. She began to use heroin about 10 years ago while she was working in Kunming and, over the past years, the drug became the dominant theme in her life. After her family found out that she was a heroin addict, they tried sending her to compulsory detox centres and to community-based detox centres, however all their efforts were in vain. Every time she came out, she would immediately resume taking heroin.

Her life totally changed the day after she experienced an overdose. When the overdose occurred, her friend called a local community group for help. They arrived in a few minutes and injected Xiao Bin with Naloxone and she gradually came back to consciousness. In the days after she was saved, Xiao Bin locked herself in her room thinking about her past and wondering about her future. Finally she made up her mind to take back her life. According to her, Naloxone gave her a second chance.

Now Xiao Bin is a methadone maintenance therapy client. She lives with her parents in her home town and earns a living by managing a pet store. At the end of a recent speech she gave, Xiao Bin said that she sincerely hopes that access to Naloxone can be improved so that more lives can be saved.

Naloxone in China

Unfortunately this is not happening yet. According to Li Jianhua from the Yunnan Institute of Drug Abuse, between 1990 to 2010, over 1800 drug users died of heroin overdose in one small city in Yunnan; and the mortality of drug users is 48 times higher than that of non drug users.

Naloxone remains a sensitive topic in China. Only qualified doctors can currently prescribe Naloxone to others. But when an overdose occurs, the best way to save the victim’s life is to ensure that he/she receives a Naloxone injection as soon as possible. Calling a local hospital and waiting for professional medical staff is not the best option considering the time and related cost. Besides, when the ambulance is called, the medical staff will inform the local police meaning that the overdose patient will later be sent to a compulsory detox centre. So distributing Naloxone to communities of drug users is extremely important for saving lives. Li Jianhua from the Yunnan Institute of Drug Abuse had this to say: “I really hope that the government will issue new laws or regulations to improve access to Naloxone. This is one way to protect the most basic of human rights: the right to life”.

For more than a decade AIDS Care China – the Alliance’s Linking Organisation in China – has been making overdose prevention programmes more accessible for communities of people who use drugs in the country.

Olya Golichenko, Coordinator of the Alliance’s Asia Action on Harm Reduction project, funded by the EU, believes that “policies which increase the risk of HIV infection also raise the risk of overdose. That’s why we work with AIDS Care China to raise awareness among decision makers about the benefits of transforming drug policies, from the current punitive approach to promoting public health.”

Support. Don’t Punish is a global advocacy campaign to raise awareness of the harms caused by the criminalisation of people who use drugs. Click here to find out more and to take action.

Read more about the Alliance’s work on HIV and drug use.

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