Overdose Awareness Day

On 31 August, several hundred events are being organized around the world to raise public awareness of the importance of the overdose problem

Overdose prevention

Prevention is critial. In the USA, it is estimated that programmes for drug users and caregivers prescribing take-home doses of naloxone (a medication used to reverse the effects of opioids) and training on how to use it have prevented 10,000 opioid overdose deaths – Photo by Maazin Fyroze on Unsplash

Initially launched in Australia in 2001, the International Overdose Awareness Day is now the world’s largest campaign of its kind. The aim of the campaign is to end overdose, remember those who have died without stigmatizing them in any way, and to acknowledge the grief of the family and friends left behind.

The campaign, which is being promoted by the https://www.overdoseday.com website, also aims to raise public awareness of overdose, one of the most glaring public health crises, and to stimulate action and discussion about evidence-based overdose prevention tools and drug policies.

Text adapted from the website https://www.overdoseday.com (click for more info and find out about the events organized around the world)

Since 2012, the International Overdose Awareness Day (IOAD) has been organized by the Penington Institute, an Australian not-for-profit public health organization dedicated to promoting effective strategies, training front-line workers and organizing awareness-raising activities in these areas.

A global crisis

Drug overdoses represent an international crisis. Over the last twenty years, drug-related overdose deaths have increased significantly around the world. Each year, a record number of deaths are reported, mainly driven by the use of opioids, often in combination with other drugs such as benzodiazepines, stimulants and alcohol.

In 2020, an estimated 284 million people, i.e. one in every 18 people aged 15-64, had used one or more drugs in the last 12 months, a 26% increase compared with 2010. Opioids account for two-thirds (69%) of drug overdose deaths. The estimated number of people using opioids globally has doubled, from 26-36 million in 2010 to 61.3 million in 2020. Opioid overdose epidemics are now wreaking havoc in various regions of the world. One is essentially driven by the widespread availability of Fentanyl – a particularly potent synthetic opioid – in the United States and Canada.

Time to remember, time to act

The campaign not only aims to provide information about the issue of fatal and non-fatal overdose as well as an opportunity for people to publicly mourn loved ones, but also to reduce drug-related harm and stimulate discussion about overdose prevention – Image: International Overdose Awareness Day, Penington Institute

What’s more, since the early 2000s, a new drug has spread to the main drug scenes in the United States: xylazine. This animal tranquilizer that goes by the street name ‘tranq’ is a common additive to illicit drugs like fentanyl and heroin. Also dubbed the ‘zombie’ or ‘skin-rotting’ drug  due to its effects and consequences on drug users, Xylazine dramatically compounds the effects of illegal drugs – to the extent that in April 2023, the Biden administration declared xylazyne-laced fentanyl an official emerging drug threat to the nation.

The other overdose epidemic is occurring mainly in North Africa, West Africa, the Near and Middle East and South-West Asia, and is associated with the non-medical use of another synthetic opioid. This epidemic does not make the headlines and receives relatively little media attention. The culprit here is not fentanyl-laced heroin, or even hydrocodone or oxycodone, but a much less potent analgesic: tramadol. This prescription opioid is not only cheap but also readily available, making it the drug of choice for young people.

Preventing overdoses is possible!

All drug overdoses are preventable. There are practical strategies for reversing and preventing overdoses and reducing the harm associated with problematic drug use. One of the aims of International Overdose Awareness Day is to raise awareness of evidence-based strategies and tools that can help prevent overdoses – that is, prevent harms and deaths from overdose.

To provide an effective response to the current global epidemic, several factors need to come together. These include activating communities to raise awareness and advocate for change, generating ideas and knowledge by listening to those with lived experience of overdose and people who use drugs, using culturally appropriate solutions, and much more.

Overdose is a complex issue involving stigma, discrimination and various misunderstandings about drugs and people who use them. Many people in our communities have been misinformed or never informed about the risks associated with drug use, including alcohol and pharmaceuticals. Therefore, our collective response to overdose demands a comprehensive response from governments, organizations within and beyond the health sectors, and a compassionate, informed community.