In 2010, Aimee Dunkle lost her 20-year-old son, Ben, to an accidental heroin overdose. Since then, it's become her mission to prevent as many overdose deaths as possible and, thus, prevent other people from experiencing the pain she's felt from the death of her son. As a co-founder of the Solace Foundation, she's become Orange County's go-to woman for Naloxone, the overdose reversal drug that can save the life of an overdose victim if administered quickly enough.
"Naloxone is one of the most important things to have if drug use is an issue that someone close to you faces," says Dunkle. "My son didn't have to die. Naloxone could have saved him. But it's my job now to help other people avoid the pain that I've gone through with the loss of my son."
According Dunkle, 129 people in the U.S. die every day from drug related overdoses. Of those 129 deaths, one person dies from an overdose in OC every day— on average, Dunkle explains. To bring awareness to this issue, a candle light vigil will be held at the Huntington Beach Pier this Sunday from 5 to 7 p.m. in remembrance of those who've passed from drug overdoses.
International Overdose Awareness Day takes place each year on August 31st, but the somber day is slowly transforming into a week of events focusing on education, health and harm reduction. With the implementation of Orange County's first needle exchange program (OCNEP), this year's Overdose Awareness Day focuses on the importance of harm reduction services.
"The United States has been behind the times up until just a few years ago in regards to harm reduction," says Diane Goldstein, an Executive Board Member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Overdose Awareness Day in Orange County is important because we have a high rate of overdose deaths relative to the issue of opiates— heroin use in particular. The heroin problem in Orange County isn't going away, no matter how much our county government ignores the issue."
The statistics on drug overdoses in the United States are alarming. In 2014 alone, drug overdose deaths across the U.S. hit record numbers. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 78 people die every day in the United States from opioid overdoses. That number, however, grows substantially when you expand your focus from opioid deaths to drug overdose deaths in general.
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As Dunkle points out, if a user is interested in getting treatment, OCNEP has information necessary for recovery. If someone wants to educate themselves on the risks of drug use, or a specific kind of drug use, the needle exchange program has that information. If you need condoms or information on sexual health OCNEP can provide that info as well. But perhaps the most progressive aspect of the OCNEP is their distribution of Naloxone.
"I started distributing Naloxone in June 2015, and between June and February 2016 (when the needle exchange program opened) I had twelve reversals," Dunkle says. "Now I work with the needle exchange program every Saturday and train on the distribution of Naloxone. Since I started at the Orange County Needle Exchange in February, I’ve had 182 reversals."
The Overdose Awareness Day gathering on Sunday, then, brings light to the fact that the OCNEP is vital to public health in Orange County. But because drug use is such an issue in Orange County, not only has the needle exchange run out of Naloxone, but they've run out of funding to get it. "We have no funding at all. We are a private group that relies on donations to provide this to people. The public health department has done absolutely nothing for a situation where at least one person is dying a day in Orange County to a drug-related overdose...It's blatant disregard for public health and safety on their part."
The Orange County Needle Exchange Program operates every Saturday at the civic center in Santa Ana.