Prevention Point's executive director, Aaron Arnold, says the event — taking place at the Pittsburgh City-County Building on Tue., Aug. 27 — “pushes back against the stigma surrounding substance use by reframing how we think an talk about overdose.”
“When we observe International Overdose Awareness Day, it is so important to take time to mourn the loved ones we've lost, but we also realized that was only half of the story,” says Arnold. “There was no space to celebrate the lives saved and the life-savers, so we created this as an event to promote hope and compassion.”
The day symbolizes Prevention Point’s mission of reducing the health risks to drug users. Founded in 1995, the organization has continually pushed for needle exchange services necessary to preventing injection-related health problems. Since 2002, Prevention Point has established county-authorized needle exchange sites throughout the city.
County opioid deaths have dropped over the last two years, but still number in the hundreds. The organization is focused on preventing as many overdose deaths in Allegheny County as possible. It hands out and trains people in the use of naloxone kits. Naloxone is a medication able to block the effects of opioids on the brain and, in the case of an overdose, can restore breathing within minutes.
Prevention Point says that in 2018, the Allegheny County Health Department trained over 2,000 people on how to use and distributed over 8,000 naloxone kits. That same year, EMS providers used 916 doses of naloxone, while Prevention Point reports its naloxone distribution program has assisted in 3,016 overdose reversals between 2005-2018.
Arnold also points out that overdose deaths in Allegheny County fell by 40 percent between 2017 and 2018, thanks in large part to the increased availability of naloxone.
Prevention Point administrative coordinator Katie Houston says that, while Allegheny County has seen a decrease in overdose deaths, it still claimed 432 lives. She believes raising awareness of the issue through events like Honoring Survivors & Revivers, which will feature a variety of speakers, a health fair, and access to naloxone kits, is key to tackling drug-related deaths.
“Overdose deaths from opioids [are] preventable, but so many people who use opioids hide their use, use alone, and stay in the dark because of the stigma they feel every day from how they are treated by others,” says Houston. “We need to change the way we interact with others and how we view substance use disorder. We need to stop, take a moment and listen, listen to others' stories, to hear their needs instead of deciding what is best for another person, and stop placing moral judgments on their lives of others."
While the numbers may seem promising, Arnold wants to see more emphasis on what happens after a drug user survives an overdose.
“A drop in deaths isn't just feel-good data,” says Arnold. “It demands that we now deal with the reality that most people will survive an overdose and may have ongoing needs related to substance use that we should be prepared to address.”
He points to how healthcare, social services, and housing programs have used punitive measures to combat substance use, an approach that has failed to have a lasting impact.
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto's office collaborated with Prevention Point on the Honoring Survivors & Revivers event and agrees. Peduto’s manager for critical communities initiatives, Laura Drogowski, says they are looking at sustainable, long-term ways to reduce opioid-related overdose fatalities.
“The real work is keeping people alive and caring about their well being,” says Drogowski. “We need to continue to embrace evidence-based strategies, including syringe exchange and medication-assisted recovery access, recognizing that a crisis of this magnitude requires a bold approach built around compassion and science.”