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Methadone reduces HIV risk: Vancouver study

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver

A drug addict takes a dose of methadone. 

A drug addict takes a dose of methadone. REUTERS

Methadone users are four times less likely to contract HIV compared to their counterparts that haven’t participated in the opiate replacement therapy, according to a new medical study out of Vancouver.

Dr. Keith Ahamad and his team monitored 1,639 injection drug users over a 17-year period primarily in the Vancouver Downtown Eastside area — the criteria being that at the start of the study, all of them had to test negative for HIV.

His goal was to find out whether the 20% of study participants that were in the methadone program — a medical treatment to replace heroin — actually saw any improvements in HIV prevention.

Being drug users, the results came in sporadically over the study period. Some results were collected just months after the first test and others were collected years later.

“So anytime within 1996 and 2013 they came for at least one follow-up,” Ahamad said.

But what was consistent was how fewer methadone users had contracted HIV between their first and follow-up tests. According to the results, only 2-3% of methadone users tested positive for HIV on their follow-ups, while 8-9% of their counterparts not enrolled in methadone programs tested positive.

Ahamad said this is evidence methadone treatment programs work.

“For people that were on methadone, they’ll see a doctor more frequently, they’ll see pharmacist every day, those interactions probably had an impact as well,” he said.

“With opiate addiction comes a lot of risky behaviour — sex work, needle sharing, incarceration and crime, all those things. Methadone has been shown as very effective in reducing those risks.”

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