Established as The Skamokawa Eagle in 1891

Health & Human Services Offers Drug Test Strips for Harm Reduction

In the year 2000, my mother and I stood across from the television as the news anchors warned us of the newest drug sweeping the nation. That year it was ecstasy, or MDMA, and law enforcement officials said that this drug worries them more than any other. It was incredibly easy to overdose on. You overheat and seize until you die. I cried out in worry for my father, who was serving time in Cowlitz County jail for narcotics. 8-year-old me was convinced that because this drug existed, that my father would use it, and that he would die.

My father was offered probation in exchange for his participation and completion of a drug and alcohol counseling program. He put everything he had into that second chance. He went to all the meetings and UAs – even on his wedding day. Once he took me to a memorial service for a young man that he was in the program with. “If you relapse and try to take the same hit that you’re used to,” he explained, “it could kill you.”

Naloxone (also known by the brand name NARCAN) is a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses by blocking the effects of opioids and restoring breathing in minutes. Today it’s readily available in many places, including here at the health department. If it was as accessible 20 years ago, that young man might have had enough time to get to the hospital and get the help he needed. I remember the memorial being packed, so many more people than I had ever seen at any other service. People who would have loved for him to have a second chance.

Since her marriage to my father, my mother has been hyper-aware of trending substances on the scene. Over 20 years later, she still sends me news stories – ketamine, fentanyl, and now xylazine. In 20 years, the story hasn’t changed much, but the number of deaths has increased dramatically. The U.S. is experiencing the most significant substance use and overdose epidemic it has ever faced. Over 300,000 people have died from them nationwide in the last 15 years. That's about 55 people per day.

Worsening circumstances have compelled public health to come up with new approaches to the opioid crisis. Leading with empathy, a harm reduction approach sets aside fear, confusion, frustration, or anger toward a person who is experiencing substance use disorder, encouraging them to seek resources for support and connect with loved ones and peers to aid in their recovery.

Harm reduction services are evidence-based and save lives by emphasizing the need for compassion toward people who use drugs, encouraging accessibility of services that may serve as a pathway to additional health and social services.This includes additional prevention, treatment, and recovery services. These services decrease overdose fatalities, acute life-threatening infections related to unsterile drug injection, and chronic diseases (such as HIV and hepatitis C). A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics states, “Decades of evidence have revealed that many harm reduction strategies are highly effective in decreasing the transmission of infectious diseases, preventing overdose, and reducing other sources of morbidity and mortality among people who use substances, including young people who use illicit drugs.”

Stacy Wynn, Wahkiakum County Health & Human Services Public Health Nurse, stresses the impact of harm reduction practice in communities. “Public Health taking a compassionate response to the opioid epidemic reduces the burden on the healthcare system,” Wynn stated. “This means fewer hospitalizations, fewer 911 calls, fewer ambulance rides. And overall, I think the biggest effect on community is keeping our loved ones and neighbors who struggle with substance abuse alive. These aren’t nameless faces who are lost, they are someone’s friends, family, even parents.” In the last decade, more than 320,000 children lost a parent from drug overdose in the U.S.

Wahkiakum County Health & Human Services has been distributing NARCAN in the community since October 2023 and is now offering safe drug test kits. Test kits provide people with information about the content of their illicit drugs, which may be laced with deadly doses of fentanyl and now xylazine, also known as “tranq,” which is an animal tranquilizer. The unintended use of fentanyl, especially by people who have not built up a tolerance for opioids, has led to a spike in drug overdose deaths around the country. In 2023, the DEA removed 4.8 million lethal doses of fentanyl in Washington state. Recently, Xylazine use has led to several deaths in Washington state and for this substance, NARCAN offers little aid.

Though the benefits of harm reduction are backed by evidence, stigma around substance use disorders creates a fear of these strategies. “Just as seatbelts don’t encourage more people to drive,” Wynn commented, “safe drug test strips only make using substances less dangerous. Studies have even shown positive fentanyl test strip results are associated with taking less of a drug or not using it at all.”

Harm reduction gives hope to those with loved ones struggling with addiction, and hopefully, keeps them around long enough to benefit from recovery services.

Safe drug test strips will be available through the health department on a walk-in basis beginning June 1st. For more information, please call Stacy Wynn at 360-795-8630.

 

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