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Health Spotlight: ‘Harm reduction vending machines’ aid in opioid crisis

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — In 2020, 16,000 Americans died from a prescription opioid overdose. But in 2021, over 100,000 Americans died from illegal opioid overdoses, like fentanyl.

With the number of opioid overdoses and deaths skyrocketing, public health experts are developing programs to easily distribute naloxone, also known as Narcan, which reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, and one might have been discovered.

Daniel Arendt, who is a Doctor of Pharmacy, led the research with his team at the University of Cincinnati. They partnered with a nonprofit called Caracole to develop “harm reduction vending machines.”

Suzanne Bachmeyer, director of prevention with Caracole, says these vending machines, funded entirely by private grants and donations, include safer injection kits, both injectable and nasal naloxone, and more.

These products, Bachmeyer says, will be readily accessible in secure machines that resemble vending machines. People call a number on the machine and will receive a code to gain access to the supplies.

Arendt and Bachmeyer say they know to some, the vending machines seem counterintuitive, providing free naloxone and fentanyl test strips to people struggling with addiction, but they disagree.

Bachmeyer said, “We do not believe that providing supplies to keep people safe, to keep people from overdosing, and to keep people from contracting infectious diseases, enables them in any way.”

The vending machine has been operational for two years, with more than a thousand uses. Researchers say it has contributed to a decrease in overdose deaths in Cincinnati and the surrounding area.

“It’s important to recognize that overdoses are up 15% nationwide, but preliminary for us, overdoses are down 10%,” Arendt said.

Advocates say the machines keep supplies locked but within reach, and the process is entirely anonymous, which may eliminate the fear of arrest or reprisals.

Bachmeyer says other health organizations and community groups nationwide have reached out to learn more about the program. A second vending machine has also been established in another Ohio county.