As West Virginia continues to deal with its drug epidemic, naloxone has become more readily available around the state in the last few years in the wake of changed state laws regarding its use. Naloxone is a medication that can reduce the effects of an opioid overdose.
University of Charleston professor of pharmacy Dr. Lindsay Acree has worked with the university’s pharmacy to get naloxone into county health departments as well as into the hands of everyday West Virginians.
Her advocacy on on-the-ground work recently earned her an award from the state health department, and reporter Amelia Knisely spoke with Dr. Acree about it.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Knisely: Tell me a little bit about your background. When I Google you, I can tell this is a field you’re well-awarded and very passionate about. I’d love to hear where you’re from and how you got started in this field.
Acree: I’m from South Charleston. I’ve been here the majority of my life. I became a pharmacist in 2013. There were a number of things that made me want to get into addiction and recovery — just wanting to make an impact on individuals and save lives — one of those being I had a high school friend pass away from an overdose my first year of pharmacy school and another one right after I graduated. It has impacted me in a way that really made me want to do something else.
I started working with the health department here in Kanawha County when they started offering their harm reduction program, and I started offering free naloxone training to individuals that were coming into the harm reduction program but also to any one who wanted training.
When the harm reduction program was stopped, we just really didn’t see those people coming in for naloxone. So, [we had] to figure out ways to get it out in the community and meet people where they were. We knew people were dying, and we were seeing an increase in overdoses.
Knisely: For our listeners who may not know what naloxone is, can you provide a brief summary?
Acree: Naloxone is a reversal for an opioid overdose. It’s not a forever kind of thing. Once it reverses the overdose, the idea is that we let that person breathe. And it’s really all we’re doing — we’re just trying to save that person’s life. Anyone can carry naloxone in the state of West Virginia with or without a prescription.
Knisely: Do you feel there is more the state could be doing to get naloxone to more community members around the state?
Acree: I think there are some things we are working on that are helping in that regard (including) distribution in the jail system — when people are leaving, making sure that those individuals who are high risk have the opportunity to get naloxone to take with them. And, in the emergency departments and with EMS, we are working on ways to get those individuals to be able to distribute as well. I think the other piece has to do with stigma, and I know everyone talks about sigma — some people are sick of hearing that word — but it makes a difference. The way that people look at naloxone tends to prevent people from getting it and keeping it with them. We need to get past that stigma.
Knisely: You recently won the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ first-ever Impact Award for Commitment to Advancing the Field of Addiction Prevention, Treatment and Recovery. Congratulations.
Acree: Thank you. I was very surprised that I got the award. I was not expecting that at all. I was very thankful for it.
Knisely: This award is due to your efforts with the University of Charleston in increasing naloxone access around the state and taking it outside of just health departments.
Acree: The big thing that we’ve done here is that we’ve taken a program that was originally mostly at health departments — not that, that’s not a great place to have it, because that’s a great place in every community to access naloxone — but we’ve taken it to the next level. We’ve also looked at what in the legislation needs to change to increase access to naloxone, which I feel like we’ve done in West Virginia by allowing organizations and community groups to be able to distribute naloxone. So, we do all the trainings, or the majority of trainings, for organizations that are going to distribute, as well as we are the ones that coordinate the distribution to those organizations and health departments. I know a lot of people are still dying, and we still have and we still have a lot of work to do, but imagine had we not had that naloxone out there?
Knisely: What is next for West Virginia? Where do we need to focus on to reverse the opioid crisis in our state?
Acree: I always say naloxone is like a band-aid. All we’re doing is keeping people alive, and that’s great. That’s what we want to do. But, we need to connect the dots in the other areas as well. So, really just getting the word out about where they can get treatment, making sure people are aware of how to find treatment and helping them get there. I think those are all the big pieces that need to be a little stronger here in West Virginia.