Rhode Island has rolled out a new mobile methadone clinic, in an effort to combat drug overdoses. What exactly are these units, what kind of treatment will they offer, and how will they help reduce the number of drug fatalities?
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What is Methadone?
Methadone is a synthetic opiate prescribed by doctors to help people stop taking heroin. It is also sometimes used to handle extreme pain. First developed by the Germans during World War Two, methadone has two key effects. Firstly, it alters the way in which the brain and nervous system process pain. The second effect, and perhaps most important, is how it deals with other opiates.
Methadone is used primarily in cases of opioid use disorder. Methadone can be very effective in helping people reduce their dependence on heroin or other opiates. It does this in a number of ways, such as by:
- reducing cravings for other opiates
- helping to minimize withdrawal symptoms
- blocking the high from other opiates
Methadone is only available by prescription and is usually taken orally. While it is much safer than heroin, it can still be addictive.
How Is Methadone Used to Help People with Opiate Addiction?
Thanks to all these properties, methadone can be an invaluable tool in treating heroin addiction. It is used in two key therapies, detox, and methadone maintenance therapy (MMT).
With detoxification therapy, methadone can be used as a short-term replacement for heroin or other opiates. By using methadone as a substitute for heroin, patients can then detox from methadone without the severe side effects that can come with heroin withdrawal. The withdrawal symptoms from heroin include:
- abdominal cramps
It is much safer and more comfortable for someone with opioid use disorder to detox using methadone as a replacement. It also allows patients to forgo withdrawal management, which would be part of an opiate detox without methadone. With out methadone use, it’s recommended for patients visit a professional drug detox in Massachusetts, so their withdrawl symptoms can be closely monitored.
When used as part of maintenance therapy, methadone acts as a long-term replacement for heroin or other opiates. Patients switch to methadone and remain on a steady dose for longer periods of time.
Methadone Maintenance Therapy
The long-term use of methadone as a replacement for heroin comes with many secondary health and social benefits. One of the key benefits of MMT is that the drug is taken orally rather than injected. This leads to a dramatic decrease in drug injections, which in turn reduces the rate of HIV infections.
One study that followed opiate-abusing intravenous drug users over eighteen months showed a lower rate of HIV infections amongst those who remained in MMT. The conversion rate of HIV amongst those who were taking part in MMT was at 3.5% at the end of eighteen months. The HIV conversion rate for those who did not take part in MMT was much higher, hitting 22% after eighteen months.
MMT also helps protect patients from the unknown quality of heroin procured on the street. Street drugs are often cut with other substances to increase profitability, but this can be dangerous for those who take them. This combined removal of intravenous injections as well as the guaranteed purity of the product make methadone much safer than street heroin.
By removing the need to buy illegal drugs on the streets, the patient is also exposed to fewer dangerous situations and pressured into less potentially criminal acts. This also extends to what it takes to raise enough money to maintain a heroin or opiate addiction.
What Are the New Mobile Methadone Clinics?
CODAC Behavioral Healthcare has launched these new units in an effort to curb opiate-related deaths in Rhode island. They are the first of their kind to meet new criteria set by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The primary function of the new mobile unit is to deliver treatment to the people who need it most in the areas they inhabit. The hope is to remove as many barriers to treatment as possible, while simultaneously targeting the most in-need groups.
The mobile clinic will dispense medication such as methadone, as well as provide counseling services to help tackle underlying mental health issues that may be contributing to the addiction. Two other FDA-approved medications will also be available for people suffering from opioid use disorder.
The 27-foot-long unit will be trialed in Woonsocket and will operate Monday to Saturday. It will be fitted with teleconferencing equipment to connect visitors with a counselor and a medical doctor will also be available.
Why Use Mobile Units?
This mobile clinic has been launched in response to the rising number of fatal drug overdoses both nationally and in Rhode Island. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that over 75,000 people in the US died from opioid overdoses in the year ending April 2021. In Woonsocket alone, over 400 people died from accidental overdose in the same period. The rise in accidental overdoses is often attributed to the spread of fentanyl, a much stronger synthetic opiate.
The mobile unit will allow for a highly targeted approach to curbing these preventable deaths, as well as helping improve access to further treatments. While the rates of overdose deaths are rising across all demographics, CDC figures show a disparity in how fast they are rising. Overdose death rates amongst Black Americans rose by 44%, and by 39% for American Indian / Alaskan Native people. This is compared with a 22% rise in overdose deaths for White Americans.
The clinic will be able to move to meet the needs of different demographics at different times, allowing for more people to access treatment to recover from opioid use disorder (OUD). With a safe alternative to heroin and fentanyl so readily available, more people will be able to access treatment to help them live healthier, happier lives.