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Methadone treatment program is improving lives and communities on Vancouver Island

British Columbia’s Opioid Substitution Treatment (OST) system, which replaces heroin and other illegal narcotics with medically prescribed opiates such as methadone, is being touted as a success—but there’s still progress to be made.

A recent report published by the Office of the Provincial Health Officer (OPHO) of B.C. has concluded that the increase in availability of the treatment, as well as the increase in average duration of treatment of OST patients has “helped contribute to the lower incidence of HIV infection among those who inject drugs,” as well as decrease the mortality rate of those addicted to opiates.

The OPHO’s report is a follow-up to the 2010 analysis from the Centre for Addictions Research of BC, which recommended regular studies be carried out on the program’s progress after methadone treatment initiatives between 1996 and 2008 were found to have declining retention rates and distribution issues caused partially by a lack of comprehensive implementation strategy along with accountability and responsibility issues within the system.

Almost all of us are touched at some point in our lives by addictions, whether it’s someone we know personally or by the social repercussions those struggling with these issues, according to Dr. Paul Hasselback, Medical Health Officer for Vancouver Island Health (VIHA), and anything we can do to change the culture of recognizing and respecting addictions as a health issue and removing the stigma of addiction, the further we’ll be able to come in terms of dealing with it.

According to Hasselback, the number of people who have self-reported that they have had a significant problem with substances other than cannabis or alcohol “at some point in their lives” is in the range of five per cent of the total population. Clearly, OST will not help all those people, but the fact that Campbell River has seen an increase in use of OST, and that the numbers have not leveled off, means that there’s still work to be done to reach those who could benefit from it.

“The fact that we’re seeing growth means that more people are actively engaged in the rehabilitation stage,” he said, which is a good indicator that progress is being made in tackling this issue.

The next step, according to Hasselback, is to keep working towards a truly comprehensive and coordinated approach to OST, improving local access for patients in underserved areas—like “north of Campbell River,” according to Hasselback—and exploring the possible use of new substitutes for those who are resistant to the ones currently is use.

The study concludes that though the outlook for the program is good and the overall results are positive, especially in regards to contributing to lower HIV and other blood-borne disease transmission, “further work needs to be done on aspects of the system and indicators such as psychosocial supports.”

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