This Ohio vending machine has the power to save lives. Here’s how: ScienceAlert

They’re more commonly associated with snacks and drinks, but vending machines filled with overdose medication have the potential to save lives.

An evaluation by University of Cincinnati clinical pharmacy specialist Daniel Arendt of a single self-service unit set up in Cincinnati, Ohio concluded that such services could significantly expand access risk reduction measures.

The machine dispenses naloxonewhich can be administered as a nasal spray or injection to counter the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose.

Other materials have been placed inside the vending machine, including containers to dispose of sharp objects (such as needles), kits to inject and smoke more safely, as well as pregnancy tests and dressing boxes.

Medicine vending machine
The vending machine used in the trial. (Caracole/University of Cincinnati)

“A cornerstone of harm reduction is helping people who use drugs stay as healthy as possible,” says Suzanne Bachmeyerdirector of prevention at Caracole, the HIV/ AIDS service organization that participated in the trial.

“Vending machines provide 24/7 access to life-saving and disease-preventing supplies so people feel empowered to take control of their health. People cannot regain their health or seek treatment if they are not alive.”

The vending machine was placed outside a current in-person Syringe service program (SSP) in February 2021. Those involved in the program, which aims to help drug addicts, must register to gain access to a code for the machine, which is then valid for 90 days. After 90 days, people can register again.

A total of 911 people have used the dispenser since it was installed, the researchers report, of whom almost 16% have never used harm reduction services before. The machine dispensed 3,360 doses of naloxone and 10,155 fentanyl test strips (which can prevent overdoses by detecting the powerful synthetic opioid in other drugs).

The team’s latest figures suggest 960 overdoses have been reversed using the machine’s kits. More than two-thirds of those who re-enrolled in the program also report finding fentanyl in their drug supply, which in many cases led them to discard their drugs or use a lower dose.

More than 107,000 people are thought to have died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2021, with the majority of those to opioids.

“I think it was really striking how it was taken up almost immediately compared to other in-person needle service programs,” says Arendt.

“Recognizing how many people were looking for something like this or needed something like this was really surprising.”

While similar vending machines have been used in other parts of the world with positive results, the United States is catching up. A number of cities and counties have begun installing naloxone dispensers in recent years, although drug safety experts want to see them used more widely.

The idea is not to allow or condone drug use, but to meet people where they are and offer safety measures and other forms of support. Researchers report that the vending machine dispensed more doses of naloxone and fentanyl test strips than any other SSP in the county, while attracting people who had never used harm reduction services before.

Although legal bureaucracy prevented the team from including sterile syringes in the machine, even without it the trial had a major impact. And while the machine represented a slight improvement in distributing harm reduction materials more equitably to black participants than other services from Hamilton County to Cincinnati, Arendt says more work needs to be done.

“If you’re interested in quitting, we’re here to help,” says Arendt.

“But otherwise, we’re not going to kick you out and refuse to help you. We’re going to work with you and help you take steps that will help you stay safe.”

The research was published in the Journal of the American Pharmacists Association.

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