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Area native creates app to lower overdose deaths

Will alert users to batches of drugs containing fentanyl

Submitted photo Boardman native and executive director of the student-run SOAR Initiative Pranav Padmanabhan is seen here with the initiative’s outreach worker Jessica Mitsch volunteering at Safe Point Syringe Exchange in Columbus. The initiative produced an alert system to help reduce overdoses.

When it comes to reducing the adverse effects of substance-use disorders, an alert system developed in an initiative led by a Boardman High School graduate aims to save lives by reducing fatal overdoses.

The SOAR Initiative is a student-run nonprofit created in 2019 by executive director Pranav Padmanabhan, a 2018 Boardman graduate and student at The Ohio State University, and five other students.

“I became passionate about this issue after seeing the devastation that overdoses have caused in my community, especially growing up in Boardman, where the issue is so prevalent,” Padmanabhan said.

The initiative now is launching its Overdose Surge and Deadly Batch Text Alert system in the Mahoning Valley. It will alert users who have signed up for the service about “deadly batches” and allow them to report fentanyl-contaminated substances to warn others of the danger.

“Studies have shown that if someone knows there is fentanyl in their drugs, even if they are addicted, they will use more slowly and carefully,” Padmanabhan said.

The system uses encryption to create an anonymous, two-way communication channel.

“Our text alerts use a service called Twilio, which encrypts all the phone numbers and data that people submit about substances and the location where they were bought, and we never store any personal data or share it with the police. The text system creates an anonymous two-way communication channel which allows communities of drug users to share information and keep each other safe, especially in times of isolation,” Padmanabhan said.

SOAR launched the alert system in other parts of Ohio last year.

Networks are set up in central, southwest and northeast Ohio, and now in the Mahoning Valley, using data from county health departments in each of those areas to inform users.

“We launched the text alerts in Columbus last year and have over 800 subscribers, and we’ve now partnered with Mahoning County Public Health and Mahoning OhioCAN to launch a separate system for the Valley. To sign up, anyone can simply text ‘SOAR’ to 330-476-7627,” Padmanabhan said.

By anonymizing the app, more members of the community are likely to use it, Padmanabhan said.

“Because there’s so much stigma about people who use drugs within public health and law enforcement, people are often wary about talking about bad batches of drugs even though it could save someone else’s life, because they’re afraid they will be punished,” Padmanabhan said.

More users will make the app more effective at warning people to take precautions to reduce the chance of a deadly overdose.

Padmanabhan and the other students took notice of a surge in overdoses in the community, on OSU’s campus, he said. They decided to take action. Some started to volunteer at Safe Point, a syringe exchange in Columbus. Syringe exchanges are another harm reduction method that seek to reduce the negative medical complications that can come with substance-use disorders.

Hopeanne Lovrinoff-Moran with Mahoning OhioCAN said committing to harm-reduction policies can save lives.

“Harm reduction is the key to reducing overdose deaths and associated disease and illness,” Lovrinoff-Moran said.

“People who use drugs are living with a medical condition, a disease, and they deserve to have every opportunity and tool available to successfully manage the disease and keep themselves safe.”

The new alert system will help reduce deaths as the fatalities in the Mahoning Valley, the state and the nation continue horrifically, she said.

“The SOAR (alert system) is an important harm reduction tool. By making this app available, we give people living with substance use disorders an opportunity for awareness of what and where contaminated drugs are … and, in that, we give them the power to make informed choices and adjustments to how they use their drug of choice.”

The system bridges a “disconnect between health departments and the general public,” Padmanabhan said.

“People who use drugs often warn each other about bad batches, but there wasn’t a way to get that info to public health leaders because of a trust barrier. In addition, health departments had data on where overdose surges were happening but no way to communicate it to the public other than social media, which a lot of folks don’t have,” Padmanabhan said.

Padmanabhan is in his fourth year of undergraduate studies at OSU. He plans to become an epidemiologist specializing in substance use.

For more information, visit thesoarinitiative.org.

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