The Texas A&M University Health Science Center has announced that each one of its more than 5,000 students from myriad disciplines will be trained to administer naloxone, a drug that can reverse the lethal effects of opioid overdoses via nasal spray or injection.
The move will go into effect in early 2019. Texas A&M experts say the university's health science center is the first in the country to commit to training every student to administer a reversal agent to opioid overdose victims.
Each student from the colleges of nursing, pharmacy, dentistry, medicine and public health will be taught to recognize an opioid overdose and to administer naloxone, according to Joy Alonzo, clinical assistant professor at the A&M College of Pharmacy, who is leading the naloxone training effort at the Health Science Center.
"Naloxone is a life-saving treatment to help until emergency personnel arrive," she said. Alonzo described the drug as having "been around for many, many years, and it only has one use," which is to help restore a person's breathing if, and only if, they are experiencing a narcotic overdose. She said it is not a stimulant.
Alonzo said the program began as a pilot with pharmacy students in 2017, and that more than 1,000 people have been trained in naloxone administration so far. Five overdose reversals have been administered in the area so far, she said.
"This is important for more than just physicians," Alonzo said. "We want pharmacists dispensing this, nurses practicing everywhere to have this skill, whether they're in a clinic, in a hospital or in a school. We need everybody. This is a team effort."
Marcia Ory, associate vice president of strategic partnerships and initiatives at the center, chairs the Opioid Task Force, which launched in March. Ory described opioid use and abuse as significant in the Brazos Valley, and in Texas more broadly -- though less severe than in Appalachia and some other parts of the country.
Ory said that it is hard to quantify the totality of the situation in the state because of limited data.
"One of the problems is that Texas is not a reportable state [when it comes to] opioid deaths. We believe that the numbers are underrepresented," she said.
Ory and Alonzo said that, while the problem appears less severe in Bryan-College Station than elsewhere, the center is training future health professionals for statewide and national employment.
"We want to get ahead of an epidemic that may or may not come, and train our students in way that will be helpful in the Brazos Valley as well as wherever they may go nationally," Ory said.
Ory and Alonzo said the task force hopes to expand trainings to residence hall staff and to law enforcement in the coming months.
"It's 'all in' for us," Ory said. "Our goal is to go campus-wide, to work with residential assistants. ... The nice thing about A&M is there have been few cases, and we want to keep it that way."
Alonzo said the task force wants to encourage law enforcement to think about treatment-based alternatives to punitive opioid-related measures.
Cindy Soltis, director of intervention and treatment services at the Brazos Valley Council on Alcohol and Substance Abuse (BVCASA), reacted positively to the announcement, which was made Monday.
"I think it's a great idea," Soltis said Wednesday. "[Naloxone] has saved many lives. We are all trained, and we teach our clients and their families to use it if there is an opioid addiction in their family. It can be bought at the pharmacy, without a prescription. The good thing about it is if it were used and opiates were not involved, it would not hurt the person at all."
Carrie L. Byington, senior VP of the Health Science Center and dean of the Texas A&M College of Medicine, said in a statement that this is another step in the center's battle against opioid stigmas.
"Together, we're reducing the stigma associated with opioids, and empowering the next generation of health care professionals to become advocates for naloxone administration within their own communities, wherever they may practice after graduation," Byington said in the statement.
Alonzo said the goal is to make health professionals in a variety of fields able to respond in moments of crisis.
"This sort of training should be very common, just like people are trained in CPR," she said. "You may never need it, but if the situation does arise, you need to know how to do it right and feel confident that you can save a life."