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Red Project aims to reduce heroin, opioid overdoses

Naloxone kit
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Brandon Hool manages the Grand Rapids Red Project’s Clean Works program, which provides clean syringe access as well as safer sex resources, support groups and anonymous HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C testing. 

“Drug overdose kills more people than HIV, Hepatitis C combined every year," he says. "It’s the number one cause of accidental death in this country, in this state, in this county.”

A recent Kent County Medical Examiner report cites a marked increase in heroin deaths in particular over the past five years. Heroin was specified in about 25 percent of the county's 75 overdoses in 2014; tied with the county's previous record in 2012.

The report says prescription pain medications are the highest cause of overdose overall last year, and noted in more than a third of all drug-related deaths - accidental, or intentional.

Hool says an effective tool in overdose prevention is naloxone or Narcan. The drug works by binding to opioid receptors in the brain to counteract an overdose. 

He says it’s very effective, remarkably safe and – as of last fall – legal to prescribe to anyone.

“The worst that can happen to somebody if they’re given naloxone is that they can go through withdrawals. If they’re opioid dependent, it can push them into withdrawals," Hool says. "Which is not going to be dangerous – it’s just going to be unpleasant. They won’t be very happy with you, but they’ll be alive.”

Steve Alsum is the director of the Red Project. He says they were the first in the state to publicly and openly provide these kits in 2008.

The organization also now goes into a variety of treatment and outpatient centers to train those clients as well. Alsum says they’ve given out close to 2,000 naloxone response kits, with training, since 2008. 

“And as a result of that, we’ve had people report back to us over 250 times that they were able to successfully use one of these kits to reverse an overdose," he says, "and potentially save somebody’s life.”

Getting more of these kits into the hands of people who need them is a big Red Project and Clean Works goal this year.

Alsum says they’re also providing technical assistance at various agencies across the state.

When looking at community solutions, Hool says aside from the drug itself, the stigma associated with drug use and dependence is also harmful.

Awareness and information can help overcome those negative perceptions.

“It’s a very, very stigmatized – people don’t know much about it. And people tend to be afraid of what they don’t know," Hool says. "But yeah, I mean - our clients are people.”