Opioid overdoses could be prevented by an app
Scientists have developed an app which they hope can save the lives of people who accidentally overdose on drugs.
Developed by a team from the University of Washington, Second Chance uses an algorithm and the phone’s built-in microphone to identify if someone’s breathing has slowed down or stopped. The idea is that it would then call their family or the emergency services.
Almost 2,000 people per year die from overdoses of opioids, including heroin, in the UK. In the US, where the problem is much worse, the figure is almost 42,000 – more people than gun violence or car crashes.
However, a drug overdose is often treatable if the person gets medical attention quickly enough. A drug called naloxone can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, and paracetamol overdoses can be treated with a drug called acetylcysteine.
The researchers tested the system on 94 people using heroin, fentanyl or morphine at the Insite supervised injection centre in Vancouver, the only one in North America. Here, drug users are allowed to inject in the presence of nurses and staff trained in overdose intervention.
The volunteers were asked to inject their drugs as normal and then monitored. Some 47 people experienced a dangerously low breathing rate of seven or fewer breaths per minute, 49 stopped breathing for a significant period of time, and two had a drug overdose that required medical treatment. The app accurately identified stopped breathing 98 per cent of the time and slow breathing 89 per cent of the time.
It also detected 19 out of 20 simulated overdoses in an operating theatre, where anaesthetics were used to mimic an overdose. This part of the experiment involved healthy volunteers who were having elective surgery, who agreed to be given anaesthetics that led to 30 seconds of slow or stopped breathing.
The idea is that the app would sound an alarm if it detected slowed or stopped breathing, and the person would need to reach over and let it know that they were okay. If they did not, it would call the emergency services or a family member.
The results were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, and the team has applied for approval for the app from the US Food and Drug Administration. Researcher Shyamnath Gollakota, an associate professor with the University of Washington School of Computer Science and Engineering in Seattle, estimated that it could be available within a year if its approval is fast-tracked.
Although designed for opioid users, the app could presumably be adapted for other drugs too. In 2017, 484 deaths in the UK were related to antidepressants, 432 to cocaine, 218 to paracetamol and 150 to amphetamines.
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