NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Residents of the most populous, low-income areas in New Jersey with the highest risk for opioid overdoses, including Newark and Camden, have less access to the potentially life-saving opioid reversal drug naloxone, Rutgers researchers have found.

The study, published in the Journal of Medical Toxicology, analyzed how a city’s population and prosperity correlated with the availability of naloxone in retail pharmacies. Naloxone, known by brand names Narcan and Evzio, reverses the effects of opioids on the central nervous system in an overdose. But the drug can be expensive and difficult to obtain.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Jersey’s opioid-related death rates are among the fastest growing in the nation, rising 29 percent from 1,376 deaths in 2016 to 1,969 deaths in 2017.

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“Naloxone can be a life-saving drug in the hands of bystanders,” said author Lewis Nelson, chair of the emergency medicine department at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School. “Although retail pharmacies in New Jersey are permitted to dispense naloxone without a prescription, not all do.”

The study compared naloxone availability in 90 retail pharmacies in 10 New Jersey cities to median household income, population and the prevalence of opioid-related hospital visits over a five-month period. 

Researchers found that naloxone was available in 60 to 70 percent of retail pharmacies in more wealthy, lower-population communities such as Little Silver, Readington and Flemington, but was available in less than 25 percent of lower-income, high-population cities such as Camden, Newark, Atlantic City and Vineland City.

“These cities with limited naloxone access also have the most severe opioid-related public health concerns,” said lead author Kevin Lozo, a medical student at Rutgers Medical School. “This shows that New Jersey has naloxone ‘deserts’ where the medication is needed most.”

Lozo offered two possible explanations for the disparities: lack of insurance and types of retail pharmacies in low-income areas.

“Cities with an underinsured population do not create demand for pharmacies to stock naloxone, which can cost up to thousands of dollars,” he said.

Another factor is that the pharmacy retail chains CVS and Walgreens have committed to stocking naloxone in their stores, but fewer of these retail stores may be located in low-income cities.

In Camden, there are two Walgreens stores and one CVS listed with a city address; in Newark, there are two Walgreens and two CVS stores.

“We found that 75 percent of the CVS and Walgreens stores surveyed had naloxone available versus only 14 percent of other retailers,” said Diane Calello, executive and medical director of New Jersey Poison Control based at the medical school and senior author of the study. “This study demonstrates that there is much more to be done to get naloxone into the hands of people who most need it.”

Christine Ramdin, a research associate in the department of emergency medicine, also authored the study.

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