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Time to act! THL published twelve ways to prevent drug-related deaths

07.08.2023 - The prevalence of drug use and experimentation has continued to increase in Finland. At the same time, the adverse effects of use and drug-related deaths have increased. Overdose deaths and long-term substance use have been on the rise throughout the 21st century.

The increase in drug-related deaths among people under the age of 25 is especially concerning. Most drug-related deaths are accidental and preventable in which a person dies after combined use of opioids, alcohol and sedatives.

"Research has shown that there are effective methods for preventing drug-related deaths, the availability of which must be further increased and strengthened. In addition, there is an urgent need for new methods in Finland, such as the development of a wearable device that recognises lifelessness caused by overdoses, so that the increase in drug-related deaths could be reduced," says Sanna Kailanto, Senior Specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. The new publication is a continuation to the 2022 publication Finnish model for preventing drug-related deaths - recommendations for the prevention of drug-related deaths. The new publication gives background and assesses twelve themes and methods that could be used to prevent drug-related deaths in Finland:

  1. Opioid substitution treatment is one of the most important, most researched, and most effective methods of treating opioid addiction. The main objective of preventing drug-related deaths should be to improve the accessibility of opioid substitution treatment, as a large proportion of deaths occur outside the treatment. Psychosocial interventions should be provided with opioid substitution treatment and also for other drug addictions according to the patient's individual needs.

  2. Needle and syringe exchange and health advice for people who use drugs. Access to health advice services should be made as easy as possible throughout Finland. Services must be available comprehensively and flexibly, taking into account the number of people who use drugs and their needs in different areas.

  3. Drug consumption room (harm reduction center). A separate act should be enacted to allow the trial of supervised drug consumption rooms. The drug consumption room trial would provide important information on how the service affects drug-related deaths and the harm caused by drug use in public spaces.

  4. Take-home naloxone program and related first aid training. Naloxone should be more available in Finland, and both professionals and people who use drugs should be trained to identify signs of overdose and to provide first aid in overdose situations. A naloxone program should be tested especially in areas with a high prevalence of opioid use.

  5. Lowering the threshold for calling for assistance. Mutual trust between people who use drugs and authorities should be further strengthened in order to lower the threshold for calling for assistance.

  6. Information exchange. Finland needs to improve and speed up the flow of information between different authorities, regional and municipal service providers and people who use drugs. Finland should establish a rapid communication channel.

  7. Campaigns. Campaigns should target different target groups, such as people with substance use disorders, young people under the age of 25, and those who use drugs occasionally and decision-makers, professionals, and the general public.

  8. Strengthening cooperation with the police. More in-depth and versatile cooperation between the police, municipalities, wellbeing services counties and the third sector is needed. The referral of people who use drugs to treatment and their access to help must be supported and promoted.

  9. Mitigating stigma. Active efforts must be continued to reduce erroneous and negative perceptions of substance use problems, people who use drugs and substance use services. The mitigation of negative attitudes and prejudices towards people who use drugs, in social and health care services and more extensively in society as a whole is important.

  10. Wearable technology. Finland should start the development and research of a prototype for a wearable device related to the prevention of overdoses. New technological innovations may open up significant opportunities to prevent drug-related deaths in Finland.

  11. Drug-checking services could provide complementary, detailed and up-to-date information on drugs currently on the market to support other monitoring methods.

  12. Decriminalisation of drug use could lower the threshold for seeking help as there would be no criminal sanctions.

In addition, the trialling and introducing several new services and methods, such as drug consumption rooms and drug-checking services, would be easier. In addition, the Specialist Group for the Prevention of Drug-related Deaths (HEAR) has selected the prevention of drug-related deaths among young people and the promotion of the inclusion of people who use drugs and people who are recovering as an important priority. Involving people who use drugs in discussions and decision making that concern their welfare is particularly important in order to reduce the number of drug-related deaths.

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