NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - City health officials want to make it easier for people who are close to heroin addicts to save their lives. The city is seeing an increase in heroin and other opiate drug overdoses, and hopes to prevent more deaths.
"We've gone from about two and two-and-a-half patients per day on average last year to about four to five in the last couple of weeks, and some days seeing up to 10 overdose patients," said Dr. Jeffrey Elder, director of the City Emergency Medical Services Department known as EMS.
This month alone, a shocking number of overdose deaths were seen at the new University Medical Center on Canal Street.
"From University Medical Center's standpoint, we're aware of seven deaths due to opioid overdose. We've had, at one point in time, 14 patients admitted in a two-day span," said Dr. Peter DeBlieux, chief medical officer at UMC.
In response, the city's health department issued a public advisory Friday which includes a standing order that will allow people close to addicts to buy the overdose-reversing drug Naxolone, also called Narcan, without a doctor's prescription.
"You do not need a separate prescription you can come to the outpatient pharmacy," said Dr. Joseph Kanter, the city's medical director.
"This is a measure that involves a spray to the nose, there are no needles involved with this medication," DeBlieux said.
"It has no abuse potential. Its only effect is to save a life. It is extremely safe," Kanter said.
Many addicts transition to heroin after becoming dependent on opiate prescription drugs.
"The pills are more expensive than the heroin is on the street," DeBlieux said.
And while the heroin epidemic is a citywide problem, city officials said some neighborhoods are considered hot spots.
"As far as our really high-use areas and high numbers where we've seen really the 7th Ward, the area around Claiborne and Elysian Fields, we've seen a lot of overdoses in that area, and we've seen the upper nine between Claiborne and St. Claude," said Elder.
"Opiate users, that's our number one demographic of clients," said Shondia Jackson, clinical services coordinator at Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse for Greater New Orleans.
She said making naxolone easier to obtain is long overdue.
"Because the reality is people are using heroin," she said.
And while heroin may be cheap and easy to get on the streets, experts say it's a monster of an addiction to kick.
"The withdrawal from heroin is terrible," said Jackson.
Doctors said those close to opiate addicts should know the signs of overdose.
"You'll see someone who maybe is breathing slowly, and not breathing at all. They may have small, or pinpoint pupils," Elder said.
And city officials stress that someone calling 911 for an overdose victim need not be concerned about legal repercussions.
"So if you are afraid that you are going to be arrested, have to deal with the police, if people find some of the drug paraphernalia that may have been used, please do not hesitate to call 911. There is a Good Samaritan law that handles that, will cover you," Elder said.