Posted on Tuesday, September 15, 2009 at northerndoctor.com
There is almost a sad inevitability about the discussion in the media around the issue of giving heroin to heroin users. When it come to heroin-assisted treatment (HAT) it is inevitable that any reasonable discussion will be drowned out by the clamouring commentariat.
The UK has been using heroin as part of the treatment of users in one form or another since 1926. More recently, there have been studies of HAT in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada which have shown benefits in health, psycho-social adjustment and illicit drug use to socially excluded heroin dependent patients resistant to other treatments.
However, it’s inevitable that ill-informed parallels will be drawn with alcohol, smoking and the funding of almost anything else in the NHS deemed more worthy. It’s even possible to drag in ‘our boys’ fighting the drugs (spot of mission creep here) war in Afghanistan if one wants to work up a proper lather. The RIOTT study (I am assuming the obligatory acronym is an ironic nod to the impact this study will have on Daily Mail readers) isn’t even published yet and already the hysteria begins…
Is it even worth discussing the science amongst this hubbub? It might be better to crawl back under the duvet, let the dust settle and have a more rational discussion when we actually have the results of the UK study.
But there is some science to look at and consider. It is only last month that the New England Journal of Medicine published the results of NAOMI, the North American Opiate Medication Initiative (another tortured acronym) which looked at exactly this issue and it’s probable that RIOTT will have similar results. NAOMI compared oral methadone versus injectable diamorphine. It was open-label and there was no attempt to blind users to their treatment. They had better retention in the diamorphine arm at 88% versus the methadone arm at 54%. The reduction in rates of illicit drugs were 67% in the heroin group and 48% in the methadone group. Overall, the diamorphine arm tended to do better.
There were clear benefits but it wasn’t without issues and there were serious adverse events. There were 18 events in the methadone group (n=111) but none of them were felt to be related to the treatment. In the diamorphine arm (n=115) there were a total of 51 serious adverse events. However, it was reckoned that 27 of these were directly related to the diamorphine and included overdoses and seizures. This has to be put in context: a total of 89,924 doses of diamorphine were self-administered during the course of the study so that’s 0.03% of injections causing an event.
There are some issues around the methodology. Users know what kind of trial they are entering and many will drop-out when they get randomised to methadone rather than injectable. Indeed, this was the case in this study and it raises some issues around bias. The methodology of RIOTT was published in the Harm Reduction Journal in 2006 and is available for free.
The final conclusion of the NEJM paper is a reasonable one:
In this trial, both diacetylmorphine treatment and optimized methadone maintenance treatment resulted in high retention and response rates. Methadone, provided according to best-practice guidelines, should remain the treatment of choice for the majority of patients. However, there will continue to be a subgroup of patients who will not benefit even from optimized methadone maintenance. Prescribed, supervised use of diacetylmor-phine appears to be a safe and effective adjunctive treatment for this severely affected population of patients who would otherwise remain outside the health care system.
It will certainly need to be given in a specialised environment so it is likely to remain a very limited intervention. The headlines have tended to highlight that crime rates fall. How can this be surprising? UK studies have shown reductions in criminal activity across all treatment modalities for years. Part of the reason for this emphasis is presumably to make it as palatable to the public as possible. It’s not enough for it to be a useful option to improve health in a limited group of treatment resistant users. There has to be a fringe benefit to society as well.
There is an excellent paper by the authors of NAOMI commenting on some of the controversies around HAT. Again, it is freely available at the Harm Reduction Journal and will give you as good a background knowledge of the issues around HAT as anything. The authors commented on the media:
Treating heroin addiction with heroin tends to evoke a knee-jerk reaction. Lack of understanding, restrictions on time and resources, and the need for a catchy headline often lead to sensationalism by the media. As previously mentioned, opposition both within Canada and the US also contributed to misleading reports from local, national, and international media. The resulting focus has been on a seeming shift in Canadian drug policy in direct contradiction to the US war on drugs, rather than on the scientific or medical merits of the NAOMI study.
Much hand-wringing will be provoked by these studies for the simple reason that some will perceive that the logical development of this whole debate is that the next step will be de-criminalisation of drugs. It is entirely possible that we are waging a phoney ‘war on drugs’ but that’s really not what these studies are all about.
Oviedo-Joekes E, Brissette S, Marsh DC, Lauzon P, Guh D, Anis A, & Schechter MT (2009). Diacetylmorphine versus methadone for the treatment of opioid addiction. The New England journal of medicine, 361 (8), 777-86 PMID: 19692689Read More