Project Lazarus, a Wilkes-based nonprofit, is getting $381,640 in grants to address the county's unusually large number of prescription drug overdose deaths.
It includes $332,640 from drug manufacturer Purdue-Pharma for a pilot program in Wilkes that includes prescribing naloxone for free to people considered at risk of prescription drug overdose.
Naloxone (known as Narcan) is a drug that reverses the potentially fatal respiratory effects of an opiate (including pain medication) overdose. Methadone, followed by oxycodone and then fentanyl, are the primary drugs involved in prescription drug deaths in North Carolina.
Project Lazarus was started through the Northwest Community Care Network , a nonprofit serving Wilkes and five other area counties, to reduce prescription drug overdose deaths in Wilkes. The grants were awarded this month to the network.
Fred Brason, Project Lazarus chief executive officer, said during a program at Wilkes Community College Thursday that Wilkes County's prescription drug overdose death rate per 100,000 people was the third highest in the nation in 2007 when 25 people died. There were 20 in 2006.
Wilkes would be quarantined if that many people here died of flu in a single year, he told the audience of about 200 WCC students.
He said prescription drug overdose deaths often are accidental and result from people not realizing the dangers of taking combinations of prescription drugs, or with alcohol. Brason said the victims often consumed medication prescribed to other people.
There were 28 prescription drug overdose deaths in Wilkes last year. That gave Wilkes the highest number in the state, although Swain County had the highest rate per 100,000.
Prescription drugs have been confirmed as the cause of 19 deaths in Wilkes so far this year and the suspected cause of five other deaths, with autopsy results pending.
Brason said he and others involved with Project Lazarus are encouraged by the apparent reduction in prescription drug overdose deaths in Wilkes since June.
He attributed this to greater communitywide awareness of the problem through education and efforts to keep people from obtaining excessive amounts of prescription pain medicine through "doctor shopping" or inappropriate prescribing practices. This includes implementation of a system in which physicians report who is prescribed pain medication and how much.
Project Lazarus is playing a key role in these efforts.
By the first of 2010, Brason said, physicians in Wilkes will be able to issue prescriptions for kits with two pre-filled syringes of naloxone per kit and adapters for nasal administration. Brason said a relative or other person with training through Project Lazars would administer naloxone when the person with the prescription experienced an overdose.
He said at least 2,000 of the kits will be available at Brame-Huie Pharmacy in North Wilkesboro.
Brason said people prescribed naloxone must watch a 20-minute video covering signs of prescription drug overdose, understanding the importance of calling 911, performing rescue breathing, administering intranasal naloxone and obtaining treatment of substance abuse and misuse.
The most obvious signs of prescription drug overdose are difficulty breathing and unresponsiveness. Naloxone only works on opiates like prescription painkillers.
The video was created through Project Lazarus and can be viewed on the Project Lazarus website at projectlazarus.org/home.html.
The widow of a Wilkes man who died from prescription drug overdose and the mother of another victim share their experiences on the video.
Brason said the Purdue-Pharma grant also will be used to hire a teacher for a drug awareness program for students as part of the health and physical education curriculum in the fifth through 12th grades in Wilkes.
He said the person, employed by Project Lazarus, will also work as liaison with school counselors and as a source of information to help students with substance abuse problems.
Brason said the grant funded the position for the rest of this school year and next year. More grant funds will be sought to continue the position.
The $381,640 in grant funds also includes $48,000 from the Drug Policy Alliance for eight continuing medical education sessions on prescription drug abuse for physicians and six community forums in other parts of western North Carolina within the next year.
Brason said the community forums will be focused on starting programs like Project Lazarus because other parts of western North Carolina have situations similar to Wilkes.
He said the Drug Policy Alliance grant also funded a curriculum to help local churches and others in the faith community provide a care network for families with close relatives with substance abuse problems. Brason said members of churches and others would receive training summarized in the video.
He said the grants also funded the hiring of an administrative assistant for Project Lazarus.
"The premise is to involve the entire community, including schools, civic groups, churches, law enforcement and others," said Brason.
He said Wilkes will have the first naloxone program in the southern states.
Another $1,000 is from the UNC School of Public Health and GlaxoSmithKline Center for Excellence in Phamacoepidemiology for the nalaxone pilot program.
Brason provided a support statement from the N.C. Medical Board that said the board "is concerned about the three-fold rise in overdose deaths over the past decade in North Carolina as a result of both prescription and non-prescription drugs."
It continues, "The board has reviewed, and is encouraged by, the efforts of Project Lazarus, a pilot program in Wilkes County that is attempting to reduce the number of drug overdoses by making the drug naloxone and an educational program on its use available to those persons at risk of suffering a drug overdose.
It concludes, "The prevention of drug overdoses is consistent with the board's statutory mission to protect the people of North Carolina. The board therefore encourages its licensees to cooperate with programs like Project Lazarus in their efforts to make naloxone available to persons at risk of suffering opioid drug overdose."
by Jule Hubbard
October 30, 2009