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Finnish police balk at idea of equipping officers with anti-overdose drug

Countries around the world have successfully used naloxone programmes to reduce opiate overdose-related deaths.

Yksityiskohta poliisin sinisessä virkapuvussa.
Deatil of Finnish Police officer in uniform, file photo. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

National Police Board chief inspector Vesa Pihajoki expressed hesitancy about a working group's proposal to equip patrol officers with naloxone, a medication that can prevent opiate overdoses.

In an aim to prevent overdose fatalities, an expert working group is examining whether Finland should distribute naloxone to addicts and their families free-of-charge.

Pihajoki said putting the onus on police officers to decide when to administer medication in the field would be troublesome.

"Guards in police department jails dispense doctor-prescribed medications, at predetermined dosages. For that reason alone, training needed to be arranged so that the distribution of meds could be handled," Pihajoki said.

An expert group on drug-related death prevention, which first assembled earlier this month, has begun examining whether naloxone should be offered to drug users in the same way as, for example, clean syringes are.

When administered to someone who has overdosed on opiates, naloxone quickly reverses the drug's life-threatening effects, such as respiratory depression.

There are naloxone programmes in several European countries, in which the life-saving drug is distributed to drug users and their relatives for free.

Naloxone is kept in stock in Finnish ambulances and can be administered by trained rescue personnel but otherwise is subject to a doctor's prescription. The drug is most easily administered as a nasal spray.

Effectiveness in Finland needs research

In addition to teaching how to administer the drug, naloxone programmes also train users and their relatives how to identify signs that someone is overdosing and how to reach out for help, according to specialist Sanna Rönkä from the Institute for Health and Welfare THL.

"An [opioid] intoxication can take a long time and it is always important to call rescue services and go to the emergency room. Even if a person appears to have recovered after receiving naloxone their condition may worsen again," Rönkä said.

However, more information about naloxone's effectiveness in Finnish conditions is still needed, according to Rönkä. While the drug is known to be effective in treating overdoses of heroin and morphine as well as others, most opioid overdoses in Finland are due to the abuse of buprenorphine, alcohol and benzodiazepines.

"There's limited research on the effectiveness of naloxone programmes in reducing buprenorphine fatalities. As buprenorphine is the most widely-used opioid in Finland, the country should launch a pilot study into the effectiveness of naloxone programmes," Rönkä said.

Apart from looking into the possibilities of setting up a national naloxone programme, the expert group is examining six other proposals to address opioid abuse. Additionally, the group is also weighing the topic of establishing so-called drug use rooms for opioid users as well as speeding up addicts' access to treatment programmes.

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