Health officials in Massachusetts have announced that heroin addicts will now be supplied with a kit containing an antidote called Narcan in order to cope with situations where they have overdosed.
They hope the antidote will significantly reduce the number of overdose deaths from heroin; in 2005, in Massachusetts alone, 544 people died from overdoses of heroin and other opiate drugs, while on Cape Cod 20 people died.
Narcan (naloxone), can easily be administered nasally, has no long-term side effects and a single dose costs about $20.
State Department Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach says the move is the pilot stage of an overall strategy which prioritizes linking active injective drug users to drug treatment.
Experts say heroin is the fastest-growing segment of drug addiction and the initiative follows the results of a study by the John Hopkins Institute.
The research showed that giving Narcan in locations in New York City and Baltimore helped prevent 100 deaths in one year alone.
The kits contain two doses of Narcan, which will help treat overdoses quickly, safely and without fear of addiction and initial testing in Massachusetts saved 75 deaths in one year.
The program however does not have the support of the White House drug control policy council, some substance abuse advocates, including former heroin users.
Those who oppose the program question the safety of one addict to administer medical treatment to another and many believe that the kits will encourage the use of heroin and delay entry into treatment.
The campaign will cost less than $50,000 and enroll 450 users and if successful it may be expanded.