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A UNC student group gives away naloxone amid campus overdoses

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Many college students have added a new item to their packing lists this year - naloxone, a medicine that reverses opioid overdoses. It's a response to a worrying trend, with overdoses on campuses across the country, from Ohio State to the University of Oregon. At UNC Chapel Hill, multiple students have died from fentanyl overdoses. Liz Schlemmer of WUNC spoke to a group of students working to make the overdose medication more available on campus.

RILEY SULLIVAN: So it's all back here.

LIZ SCHLEMMER, BYLINE: Twenty-one-year-old college senior Riley Sullivan has more vials of naloxone in the closet of his off-campus apartment than even the local hospital keeps in stock.

SULLIVAN: This is 518 vials of naloxone.

SCHLEMMER: Sullivan is distributing all of it to his fellow UNC classmates this fall. He demonstrates how to inject the medicine on an orange he pulls from his fridge.

SULLIVAN: Pop the cap off of your vial.

SCHLEMMER: That breaks the sterile seal. Then he pulls out the syringe.

SULLIVAN: It's kind of like opening string cheese almost.

SCHLEMMER: Then he loads the medicine and injects it into the orange. He says to be gentle.

SULLIVAN: If you are in the position where you have had to give somebody naloxone, they've almost died.

SCHLEMMER: And students have died of fentanyl overdoses at UNC - three of them in the last two years. Fentanyl was involved in the vast majority of all teen overdose deaths in 2021. That's according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the problem has been following teens onto college campuses, from North Carolina to Texas to California. When an overdose happens, easy access to naloxone can be the difference between life and death.

NABARUN DASGUPTA: Naloxone is what I call an anti-funeral drug. It's this perfect antidote that really saves people's lives.

SCHLEMMER: That's Nabarun Dasgupta, a research scientist at UNC Chapel Hill School of Public Health. He co-founded the nonprofit Remedy Alliance/For The People that supplied all that naloxone in Sullivan's closet. Dasgupta has been worried about opioid overdoses on campus since 2005, when he was a Ph.D. student at UNC. He remembers telling his professors back then that he wanted to hand out naloxone to students.

DASGUPTA: They told me point blank that if I did that, I would get kicked out of school.

SCHLEMMER: He did it anyway. At the time, Dasgupta believes, naloxone was seen as encouraging drug use. But things have changed. Many of today's college students were born during the opioid crisis and have personal experiences with it.

DASGUPTA: Even, like, half a generation ago, we wouldn't have had that kind of lived experience among undergraduates.

SCHLEMMER: Now Dasgupta helps make naloxone more available to grassroots groups, groups like the one Sullivan co-founded with his classmates. It's called the Carolina Harm Reduction Union, and each of its founders has family and friends whose substance use has ranged from full-on addiction to occasional use at parties.

CAROLINE CLODFELTER: I didn't approach my friends who were struggling in the right way.

SCHLEMMER: Co-founder Caroline Clodfelter had friends in high school who used drugs to deal with mental health issues. At the time, she took an abstinence-only approach to drug prevention.

CLODFELTER: And got to college here at UNC my freshman year and took a class on the opioid epidemic and learned about harm reduction for the first time.

SCHLEMMER: Harm reduction is an approach that accepts some people do use drugs. It focuses on how to keep them safe.

CLODFELTER: Harm reduction, to me, is also more than just naloxone. It's more than just fentanyl testing strips. It's the support and the acceptance that comes with it.

CALLAN BARUCH: Anyone interested in learning about harm reduction techniques on UNC's campus?

SCHLEMMER: The Carolina Harm Reduction Union is holding tabling events on campus this fall to distribute naloxone and spread awareness.

BARUCH: Giving out naloxone and fentanyl testing strips if any of y'all would want them.

SCHLEMMER: Their goal is for every student to carry naloxone and know how to use it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And what does it exactly do?

CLODFELTER: So it will reverse an opioid overdose. So if you see somebody - if you're at a party, if you're in frat - are you guys freshmen or sophomores?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, freshmen.

CLODFELTER: Freshmen. All right. So let's say you're going out to a frat, party's at a frat, stick it in your pocket. It's easy to just have on you. Also, fentanyl testing strips are good, too.

SCHLEMMER: In what feels like no time, Sullivan's backpack is empty.

SULLIVAN: We're already out. And it's been - what? - like, 30-ish minutes.

SCHLEMMER: And every half hour they do this is progress toward their goal. For NPR News, I'm Liz Schlemmer in Chapel Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Liz Schlemmer
Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.