Prescription of Heroin for the Management of Heroin Dependence
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- Lintzeris, N. CNS Drugs (2009) 23: 463. doi:10.2165/00023210-200923060-00002
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The prescription of heroin (diamorphine) for the management of heroin dependence is a controversial treatment approach that was limited to Britain until the 1990s. Since then a number of countries have embarked upon clinical trials of this approach, and it is currently licensed and available in several European countries. To date, six randomized controlled trials (RCTs) with over 1600 patients and several cohort studies have examined injected (or inhaled) heroin treatment. This article reviews relevant clinical pharmacology, how heroin treatment programmes are delivered, and the evidence regarding safety, efficacy and cost-effectiveness from RCTs. Heroin is usually prescribed in intravenous dosages of 300–500 mg/day, divided in two or three doses. Uncommon but serious side effects include seizures and respiratory depression immediately following injection. Despite methodological shortcomings, RCTs generally indicate that heroin treatment results in a comparable retention, improved general health and psychosocial functioning, and less self-reported illicit heroin use than oral methadone treatment. Cost-effectiveness studies indicate heroin treatment to be more expensive to deliver but to result in savings in the criminal justice sector. There has been debate regarding how heroin treatment should be positioned within the range of treatment approaches for this condition. There is increasing consensus that, in countries that have robust and accessible treatment systems for heroin users, heroin treatment is suited to a minority of heroin users as a second-line treatment for those individuals who do not respond to methadone or buprenorphine treatment delivered under optimal conditions.