UC Berkeley, UCSF researchers examine overdose prevention strategies

Photo of street in San Francisco
Zachary Smith/Creative Commons
Two studies have looked at how drug users can reduce their risk of overdosing, with one study investigating the effectiveness of overdose response training programs and the second study measuring the use of fentanyl test strips, or FTS, among people who inject drugs. One of the research findings showed that the use of FTS was more likely among younger individuals. (Photo by Zachary Smith under CC BY SA-2.0)

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Researchers from UC Berkeley, the San Francisco Department of Public Health and UCSF conducted two studies examining the ways drug users can reduce the risk of overdosing.

One study looked at the success rate of programs that provide overdose response training to people who inject drugs, or PWID. The second study measured the use of fentanyl test strips, or FTS, which are used to detect fentanyl among PWID. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, or NIDA, fentanyl is an opioid that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine and is used to treat intense pain. Both studies used participants from San Francisco to collect data.

“FTS is a recently developed and rather novel harm reduction product, and it gives people the agency to check their drugs for themselves,” said Hayoung Oh, a study co-author, campus alumnus and University of Michigan graduate student in epidemiology, in an email.

Willi McFarland, UCSF professor of epidemiology and biostatistics and director of the Center for Public Health Research at the San Francisco Department of Public Health, was also among the researchers involved in the studies.

The researchers found that younger people were more likely to use FTS, and Black people were less likely to use them compared to white people, according to Oh.

Oh added that there are some faults with FTS, including that they cannot detect the concentration of the drug solution and the stimulant methamphetamine can create false positives, meaning methamphetamine users might not find FTS helpful.

The overdose prevention training taught PWID how to use naloxone, which, according to the NIDA, is a medication used to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose. The researchers found that the program had some success, according to McFarland.

When interviewing participants, two-thirds of them were carrying a naloxone kit, and of the more than three-quarters of participants who witnessed an overdose in the last year, more than half used naloxone, according to McFarland.

“The unknown presence of fentanyl can be a cause of overdose due to its potency,” McFarland said in an email. “In this case, more work needs to be done to distribute the kits. Under half of the PWID interviewed had used a fentanyl test kit in the last year.”

According to McFarland, the researchers gathered data using respondent-driven sampling, meaning each participant was asked to refer three other PWID. Eventually, the researchers were able to reach people through referrals who they might not have been able to otherwise.

McFarland added in the email that the data the researchers created influences the health department’s programs by showing them which groups of PWID they are not reaching and what impacts they are making.

“We are fortunate at the San Francisco health department to have partners who support and fund programs for PWID, particularly for reducing the harms caused by drug use including overdose,” McFarland said in the email.

According to McFarland, the researchers are planning to repeat these studies every three years to get data on the impact of the programs and where there still might be gaps in overdose prevention training.

Mela Seyoum is a race and diversity reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.