Harvard University Health Services rejected two College students’ proposal to make naloxone — a nasal spray used to counter the effects of an opioid overdose — publicly accessible on the University’s campus.
After taking a graduate-level course on the opioid crisis in the History of Science department, Kailash Sundaram ’19 and Eana X. Meng ’19 proposed in December that HUHS make naloxone available to Harvard affiliates and members of the greater-Cambridge area.
Sundaram and Meng’s proposal had called for naloxone to be placed in every Automated External Defibrillator box across campus and in all Harvard University Police Department cruisers, for a total of approximately 400 units accessible to the public. They projected the total initial cost to be approximately $18,500, with an additional maintenance cost of $14,000 every two years afterward.
Senior Director of Nursing and Health Promotion Maria Francesconi, who served as the HUHS liaison on the students’ proposal, informed Sundaram and Meng of the University’s final decision in an hour-long discussion, according to Sundaram. Francesconi reached her decision after consulting a group of professionals including HUHS Director Paul J. Barreira, HUHS Chief Medical Officer Soheyla Gharib, Adams House Faculty Dean John G. “Sean” Palfrey ’69, a lawyer, and a Harvard University Police Department officer, Sundaram wrote in an email.
According to Sundaram and Meng, HUHS offered three reasons for deciding against the proposal: HUPD officers already carry naloxone, it is difficult to maintain up-to-date medication in AED boxes, and there is contradictory research surrounding the benefits of naloxone.
“They had some skepticism about whether the research actually suggested that naloxone would be effective at Harvard,” Sundaram said.
Sundaram and Meng, however, said in an interview that several studies confirm the lifesaving potential of the drug.
“On the contrary, though, there is a lot of research suggesting naloxone is quite effective,” Sundaram said. “Actually, a Stanford study by two Stanford professors has shown naloxone will save 21,000 lives over the next decade.”
Meng and Sundaram also said they were frustrated by HUHS administrators' emphasis on HUPD as an adequate public source of naloxone.
“We're not so sure if that's an effective reason because, one, opioid users are often scared to contact the police because of fear of criminal repercussions,” Sundaram said.
Sundaram and Meng also added that police response times can be too long in the critical moments of an overdose.
“It's just an average [response] time of two to four minutes. And so sometimes they will take longer, and a person can die of an overdose pretty quickly,” Meng said. “The faster the person gets the naloxone, they just have a much, much higher chance of recovery.”
When asked about the factors that went into HUHS's decision, HUHS Spokesperson Michael Perry wrote in an emailed statement that despite their recent decision, HUHS isn’t entirely opposed to the idea of naloxone being publicly accessible on campus.
“HUHS is committed to ongoing conversations across the Harvard community to determine best ways to address emergent situations such as overdose and better understand opioid use on our campus through our health assessment survey that we will distribute next academic year,” Perry wrote. “HUHS will continue to consider the possibility of Narcan in our AED boxes when we have more data.”
Narcan is the brand name for naloxone.
Despite HUHS's stance, Sundaram and Meng said they plan to keep advocating for opioid awareness on campus and the need for naloxone to reach the greater-Cambridge area.
“We're in the works forming an organization and a working committee to continue this effort to make naloxone available at Harvard,” Sundaram said. “Just because HUHS said it's not the right time, doesn't mean that it's not the right time.”
In an emailed statement, Sundaram and Meng said their working group’s name will be Harvard for Opioid Overdose Prevention and Education — HOOPE for short.
Meng and Sundaram have also created a petition for other students to show their support for the project and advocate for HUHS to implement it.
The pair stressed that the importance of the initiative lies not just in expanding access to naloxone but also in educating the public.
“What we were hoping to do with this project is not only about the naloxone in and of itself, but it's about the broader thing about raising awareness and definitely about de-stigmatizing the opioid crisis,” Meng said.
“I think it's Harvard chance to be a leader and to raise awareness. So we're going to continue this effort,” Sundaram added.
—Staff writer Tamar Sarig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @tamar_sarig.