I take the glass vial and wrap the tip in my t-shirt and try to break it off without spilling the contents. I place it on the table and reach for the syringe and needle, gingerly removing the plastic cap. But when I pick up the vial again, and attempt to clumsily dip in the needle to draw up the liquid, Marianne Kromann intervenes.
“No, no, you will just end up poking yourself with the needle that way,” the 32-year-old doctor says, taking the syringe from my hands.
She places the vial on the table again, before drawing up the contents, removing the needle and replacing it with a plastic device that creates a diffuse spray when the plunger is pressed.
“Here, now give it a go,” she says handing it to me, before I spray the contents up the nose of a plastic dummy.
If it were a real person suffering a heroin overdose, it may well have saved their life. The vials contain naloxone, an opiate antidote, which swiftly binds to opiate receptor sites in the brain that prevents opiates from having an effect.
Around 250 people die every year from drug overdoses, of which heroin and other opiates are responsible for around 80 percent. In comparison, around 170 people died in traffic accidents last year.
But naloxone can do more than just save lives, it can protect from organ and brain damage too. Opiates affect the central nervous system, which controls breathing, so when users overdose their breathing can become so shallow that they become starved of oxygen, which can kill them.
They can still come around if the overdose was mild, but their brain and other organs could have been starved of oxygen, resulting in permanent damage. According to the EU Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, there are around 20 to 25 non-fatal overdoses for every death. So the sooner the antidote is administered the better.
Which brings me to why I am delivering a life-saving drug to a dummy in the back house just off Værnedamsvej in Vesterbro. It’s a class that teaches people how to use naloxone and in the room are around 15 other, mostly young people, who work with vulnerable drug users on a daily basis. The class is organised by Antidote, a charity founded by social entrepreneur Michael Lodberg Olsen, the pioneer behind Denmark’s first safe injection facilities for drug users.
Antidote’s mission is to ensure that naloxone is as widely available as possible. They hold courses both for health professionals and for drug users, and supply them with a free kit containing two vials of naloxone and a syringe.
Kromann is one of the volunteer doctors who helps teach the classes, which take place most Wednesdays. At the moment she works in an ears, nose and throat department, but says she has always felt a need to volunteer her time to help marginalised groups.
“Drug addicts are an overlooked group because they can’t speak up for themselves,” she explains. “Many don’t have the time or energy to write letters and communicate the issues they face. They live day to day, and just get lost in the system. Very often we health professionals only meet them for the first time when things really start to go wrong.”
She spent some time in a women’s shelter in Roskilde, which house a number of addicts, and some of them used sex work to earn the money to pay for drugs. She says they tell her that those with a severe heroin addiction need to earn around 2000 kroner a day, which means they are more or less either working or taking drugs.
“What struck me is how much they have to work to finance their addiction – how tough it is and they don’t enjoy it. They are also very scared of dying, and I didn’t meet one person who either had had an overdose, or knew someone who had died. Many of them were interested in taking the course because they don’t want to die and don’t want their friends to die.”
Addicts are normal people
Antidote’s work has been recognised by the government, which last month set aside 7.5 million kroner for teaching drug users how to use naloxone. Antidote received around 1.6 million of the total, while the remaining sum was divided between seven municipalities.
From a personal perspective, Kromann supports the program that supplies heroin addicts the drug through a prescription. This could lower the risk they would commit crime, or enter sex work, to pay for their addiction. And the time they would save in the process, not having to earn the money to pay for the drug, could be used on rehabilitation.
For now, though, Antidote is just another step in improving the quality of life of one of Denmark’s most overlooked and marginalized groups.
“When they have friends or partners who have the antidote, it makes them feel much safer,” she says.
“Some politicians don’t want to support the Antidote program and I don’t understand why. These are people just like you or me, just with an addiction, which they really can’t help. I don’t think we are going to help them by not giving them this opportunity.” M