Heroin addiction is nothing new to most of us. Since the introduction of this dangerous drug to mainstream culture, we have all seen its devastating effects on individuals, their families, and society as a whole. We have seen the reality of heroin taking hold in a given community before making an aggressive and bold push that overcomes large numbers of victims in a very short amount of time. And along with heroin epidemics come HIV and hepatitis C epidemics.
Take the small American town of Austin, Indiana, for example. While we have our own heroin problems here in the UK, Austin is a very good example of the current state of the heroin problem because of the size of the town and its reputation for not having drug problems in the past.
Austin is a town of just 4000 people that, until a little over a year ago, barely realised locals were using heroin. But for whatever reason, it suddenly became apparent that hundreds of people were using the drug recreationally, many of them already being addicted. The town also discovered that dozens of local addicts were also HIV positive. Off they went to Washington for help.
The federal response included sending the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in to establish a needle exchange programme. Much to the dismay of Austin, the number of positive HIV cases jumped from 55 in February 2015 to nearly 200 a year later. Hepatitis C is also on the rise despite an earnest attempt to slow down the epidemic.
Heroin is an opiate that can have devastating effects on the body with long-term use. Physically speaking, heroin addiction can contribute to rotting teeth, a weakened immune system, respiratory illnesses, loss of muscle function, loss of sexual ability (including impotence in men), chronic constipation, and more. But it doesn’t stop there.
Heroin addiction can also lead to prolonged mental illness. Chronic depression and introversion are just two examples. Heroin affects the brain in such a way that it can even cause permanent loss of cognitive function and long-term memory. All of this is bad enough without the risks of HIV and hepatitis as well.
You might be wondering where the risk of HIV and hepatitis comes from. It comes from shared needles. Whether you agree with the solution or not, this is why governments around the world believe free needle programmes should be part of combating heroin addiction.
The heroin addict looking for a fix is usually in a state of mind that prevents him or her from rationally thinking about the safety implications of shooting up. They want a fix, no matter what it takes to get that fix. If it means sharing needles with other addicts on the street, so be it. This mindset makes it very easy to pass HIV or hepatitis from one addict to the next, to the next and so on. And once a person has HIV or hepatitis, he/she has it forever.
Whether heroin is a problem in Austin, Indiana or Manchester here in our country, we need to get a handle on abuse and addiction. Every addiction has certain side effects that go above and beyond the substances being used, but heroin is especially troublesome because of the needles involved. Every time an addict shoots up with a shared needle, he or she is taking the risk of contracting a terrible disease that could then be passed on to someone else.
Getting a handle on heroin addiction requires both treatment and education. The treatment portion starts by funnelling addicts into inpatient detox followed by residential rehabilitative therapy. We have to admit that prescribing methadone as a long-term substitute in the hope that heroin addicts will take it upon themselves to cut down is not going to work. In order for addicts to recover, they have to be separated from their drugs once and for all.
Where rehabilitative therapy is concerned, heroin addicts need more than just one or two counselling sessions with the well-intentioned therapist who is too overwhelmed to give the patient any more attention. Addicts need ongoing therapy programmes to walk them through the deep-rooted issues relating to addiction. They need comprehensive aftercare services that support them in a way that reduces the risk of relapse as much as possible.
Lastly, our education efforts have to go beyond what we are now doing. As with every other addiction, heroin addiction begins with that first choice to take drugs. That’s where our education efforts need to be focused. We have managed to drastically reduce tobacco use in the UK by talking about the choices people make AND associating those choices with negative social impacts. If we can do it with cigarettes, there is no reason it cannot be done with heroin or any other drug.
Hopefully, the town of Austin will eventually get the heroin epidemic under control and, as a result, stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C. All being well, lessons will be learned to prevent the three epidemics from ever occurring again.
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