MANATEE -- The Opioid Task Force convened for the fourth and final time Tuesday with leaders saying they would continue to work with other agencies focused on the heroin epidemic in Manatee County.
The group, which brought together representatives from law enforcement, emergency medical services, addiction treatment, hospitals and state and county governments, had been meeting once a month since June, with growing numbers each time as the heroin
epidemic ravaged the county and clear solutions eluded those involved.
Wendy Nebrija and Ruth Lyerly, co-chairwomen of the task force, said they would continue fighting the epidemic by working with the groups that attended the meetings, but the monthly meetings were not necessary.
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The last meeting focused on medications to treat opioid addictions. Dr. Charles McAllister, an addiction medicine specialist, talked about the use of medication-assisted treatment for heroin users, which he said can be effective if done properly.
"The combination of counseling and behavioral therapies with medication is the most effective treatment," McAllister said, saying it has a third of the mortality rate of addiction treatment programs that did not use the drugs such as Methadone or Suboxone.
McAllister compared the drugs to a key in the keyhole of a brain receptor. The drugs would block heroin from filling those receptors and gaining access to the brain while still curbing withdrawal symptoms and cravings and not producing a high.
"Heroin goes in to the keyhole and opens the door, but Methadone just fills the keyhole and jiggles it," McAllister said.
The average time patients have on drugs such as Methadone is 23 months, he said, but there are also "lifers," people who consume it for the rest of their lives to stay off heroin and opioids. McAllister said it shouldn't be seen as a strictly bad thing just because the addicts weren't completely sober.
"It just depends on how you define success, completely drug-free and sober versus harm reduction," he said.
Gayle Callahan, director of pharmacy services at the drug addiction treatment center Operation PAR Inc., then presented on the importance of access to Naloxone and Narcan, drugs that can immediately reverse the effects of an overdose and prevent death.
Naloxone is available in Florida through prescriptions by doctors. Doctors can even prescribe it to third parties who believe someone they know is at risk of overdosing.
"Florida is the 11th in the nation in heroin overdose deaths," Callahan said. "We can prevent those deaths."
Naloxone should be made as widely available as possible, Callahan emphasized, so addicts can be brought back from overdoses. Family members and first responders should then use the time after the addict wakes up to discuss options such as medication-assisted treatment to cut down on overdose deaths.
Nationally, about 20,000 overdose deaths occur every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and the number of overdose deaths have overtaken the number of vehicle accident deaths among young people.
Kate Irby, Herald online/political reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7055. You can follow her on Twitter @KateIrby