Partners of School of Social Work distribute life-saving medication to Harvey-affected areas

Jenan Taha

Texas is in the midst of an opioid epidemic, and after Hurricane Harvey, more people are at risk for overdose.

In the past two decades, deaths from opioid overdose in the United States have quadrupled, with Texas counting 1,186 deaths in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative (TONI), in partnership with the School of Social Work, is distributing thousands of units of overdose-prevention medication to Harvey victims in need.

The founders of the initiative, Mark Kinzly and Charles Thibodeaux, traveled to Houston and Beaumont soon after Harvey hit to deliver 250 units of naloxone, a medication that prevents opioid overdose.

“When confronted with a natural disaster, which disrupts the community to begin with, their risk factors are going to increase,” Kinzly said. “We went into the communities where the drug activities happen and made sure they had this medication.”

The team provided the medication through millions of dollars worth of donations from Kaleo Pharma, a pharmaceutical company. Kinzly and Thibodeaux stocked the inventories of outreach workers and recovery agencies in Houston with naloxone and sent medical kits to Florida after Hurricane Irma hit.

The initiative has been educating people on overdose prevention around Texas for nearly four years. Thibodeaux said the opioid issue and added devastation from Harvey is very personal to him as a Beaumont native and someone who has been in recovery before.

“There’s more people that died from … overdose just last year than people who died in the Vietnam War,” Thibodeaux said. “It’s the number one cause of unintentional death.”

Both Kinzly and Thibodeaux have lost friends to opioid overdose. Kinzly said he and Thibodeaux want to not only keep people using opioids alive, but also educate people on overdose prevention.

“We have an appetite for opioids in this country like nowhere else in the world,” Kinzly said. “Every day there’s 140 people that die from overdoses. We just want people to have another chance.”

Harris County, located in Houston, has the highest number of fatal overdoses in Texas, Kinzly said. Thibodeaux said this may be because the state has been slow to change its view toward helping opioid users recover.

“There’s stigma associated with substance abuse,” Thibodeaux said. “We need to get out of that box and start thinking about keeping people alive.”

Pharmacy professor Lucas Hill works with Kinzly and Thibodeaux’s initiative in an on-campus program called Operation Naloxone. The program trains students and the public on opioid overdose prevention and response, as well as keeps dorms stocked with Naloxone.

The issue of opioid overdose is vastly undercounted and overlooked in Texas relative to the urgency of it, said Hill.

“There are probably a lot of people who are using (opioids) who could be put at higher risk due to the hurricane,” Hill said. “Everyone needs to respond to this as a severely dire situation.”

Hill said because natural disasters can disrupt routines and availability to medication, he was thankful to have TONI able to deliver naloxone to the Houston area.

“It’s not just people with chronic opioid addictions who we need to worry about,” Hill said. “It’s just good to have something like naloxone around, just in case.”

Kinzly said he wants to continue spreading overdose response education across Texas as well as working with students and faculty on campus to reach as many people as he can.