Naloxone, a medication that reverses the effects of opioid drug overdose, will soon be available over the counter in Australia.
It comes as professionals warn that once more heroin use is on the rise nationally.
When the change comes into effect in February, Australia will become just the second country in the world to make Naloxone available without a prescription, making the drug as easy to purchase as high strength cold and flu tablets.
Naloxone is described as being a life-saving medication with minimal side effects.
The drug works by reversing the overdose; it has no effect on somebody who does not have opioids in their system, and it is not addictive.
Australian Medical Association vice president Stephen Parnis said emergency department doctors used the drug on patients who they suspected had overdosed on heroin or morphine.
He said it was a drug he would only administer when a patient was at risk of dying at any moment.
”They have stopped breathing, they are blue,” Dr Parnis said.
”It’s often quite satisfying to know that very soon after giving that drug into a muscle or into a vein they start breathing again and recover fairly quickly.”
For years reform campaigners have argued that the drug’s life-saving effectiveness means that Naloxone should be available over the counter.
It is an argument the regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration [TGA], now accepts.
Professor Paul Dietze, from the Burnet Institute for medical research and public health action, said it appeared to be a recognition that people were continuing to die from drug overdoses.
”The numbers are increasing a little at the moment, it has sort of brought it back onto the agenda and finally, thankfully, we’re actually moving towards making it more available.”
Australians are generally recognised as heavier consumers of illicit drugs
The United Nations’ World Drug Report in 2014 stated that heroin seizures by police were up substantially.
So too are deaths blamed on the drug, according to the TGA.
More than 600 people died in 2010 from heroin and other similar drugs.
Professor Dietze said it was important to note that the approval of Naloxone was a change in schedule, rather than a reschedule.
Scheduling is a national classification system that controls how medicines and poisons are made available to the Australian public.
”So, it means that Naloxone will still be scheduled on Schedule 4, which means you can still obtain it on prescription.
”But it will also be available on Schedule 3, which means it can be obtained over the counter through a pharmacy,” Professor Dietze said.
That is important when it comes to cost; those with a prescription could pay as little as $6 for a single use injectable.