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International Overdose Awareness Day: Time to Remember, Time to Act

Today is International Overdose Awareness Day, an annual global event that aims to raise awareness of the worldwide overdose epidemic, and reduce the taboo around drug-related deaths.

International Overdose Awareness Day is being commemorated in at least 16 countries this year, across five continents. Globally, around 187,000 people die from drug overdoses each year. In the World Drug Report 2016, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that overdose deaths contribute to at least a third of all drug related deaths. The international approach is clearly not working; a more health-orientated and less punitive drug policy is vital.

Since 2001, International Overdose Awareness Day has provided an opportunity to improve understanding of an issue that is rarely openly discussed. Indeed, the undeniable stigma surrounding overdose poses an obstacle to guilt-free discussion and mourning.

The annual campaign – which changes its slogan each year – aims to encourage public discussion of the causes and consequences of drug overdose. This year’s mantra, “Time to Remember, Time to Act”, promotes remembrance of lives lost, whilst emphasising the crucial role of the public in preventing overdose fatalities. It aims to remind people who use or have used drugs that their lives are valued, and that support is available.

The day is also a call for change. Activists hope that it will raise awareness of the importance of Good Samaritan laws, and the life-saving opiate overdose reversal medication, naloxone.

Good Samaritan laws vary in their implementation, but their broad intention is to exempt people who witness overdoses from prosecution if they seek medical help. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, the most common reason that people who use drugs cite for not calling emergency services when an overdose occurs is fear of police involvement. If they do not fear arrest, people are more likely to call for help, thereby increasing the likelihood of survival of the person overdosing. In the US, an estimated 120 people die daily from drug overdoses; to combat this, 32 US states have passed Good Samaritan laws.

The Awareness Day also seeks the international proliferation of naloxone, a medication used to block the effects of opioids, including in cases of overdoses. To highlight naloxone’s importance, training events will be held worldwide today, to allow families, police, and outreach workers to be trained in administering the medication in the event of an overdose.

The success of naloxone use is widely accepted. In 2013, the British Medical Journal reported that the rate of overdose deaths in the US could be halved by wider distribution of naloxone. In 2015, the Canberra Alliance for Harm Minimisation and Advocacy found that, among 57 instances of program-administered naloxone, "all reported instances of overdose and use of program administered naloxone resulted in successful reversals".

Increased naloxone provisions, combined with Good Samaritan laws, would allow for people to act in an informed manner if in the company of someone overdosing.

The UN highlight the importance of the “support and active participation of governments, health services, police, and communities of people who use drugs”. Indeed, International Overdose Awareness Day highlights a vital overarching issue: to reduce the rate of overdoses, everybody – including lawmakers, and people who witness overdoses – need to be part of the solution. Action is needed at all levels.

Evidently, nobody is immune to overdose – it’s time we talked about that.

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