Safe injection sites and reducing the stigma of addiction

The United States was declared free from ongoing measles transmission in 2000. So why are we still having measles attacks? An outbreak of measles is currently raging in Minnesota. In 2015, 125 cases of measles occurred in California, and in 2014, 383 people were infected with measles in an Amish community in Ohio.
How measles outbreaks happen

There are several reasons why we are still at risk for measles outbreaks. Travelers may get infected overseas, and bring the measles virus back into the country with them unawares. The 2015 measles outbreak in Ohio began when two infected members of the Amish community returned home from typhoon relief work on the Philippines. The California measles outbreak in 2014 started at two Disney theme parks, perhaps after the virus was brought there by a foreign tourist.

In measles, there is an unusually long delay between infection and the development of the rash and other symptoms, typically about two weeks. Measles virus is also highly contagious; patients start to spread the virus to other people about four days before the rash develops. These features make it possible for measles to spread quickly through an unsuspecting population.

The final component to measles outbreaks is inadequate immunity. Many American adults have only received a single dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is only 93% effective at preventing measles. Since 1989, the recommendation has been to give two doses of MMR, which is 97% protective against measles. Vaccination rates have been low among patients in recent US outbreaks. In the current outbreak in Minnesota, most measles cases have occurred in unvaccinated Somali-American children, probably due to the success of anti-vaccine activists in pushing a debunked connection between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Measles infection can still be lethal

So, what’s the big deal about measles? For most people, measles makes for a miserable week of high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes, and an impressive total body rash. But for others, it can be a life-threatening, even fatal, condition. One out of every 20 measles patients develops pneumonia, which may be severe. Infection of the brain, or encephalitis, occurs in one out of 1,000 cases. Brain damage, deafness, intellectual disability, or death may result. Before the measles vaccine was available, measles killed 500 people in the US every year, most of them children, and led to 1,000 cases of brain damage per year.

Measles has an especially horrifying late complication known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). In SSPE, children recover from their initial measles infection, only to develop progressive brain infection with a mutated form of measles virus in their teenage years, leading to a persistent vegetative state.

Many outbreaks of measles could probably be prevented if more travelers received MMR prior to foreign travel. According to a study done in US travel clinics, 16% of pre-travel patients were eligible for measles vaccine, but only a minority of patients received it. The authors of the study cited many reasons that patients didn’t receive the vaccine, with patient refusal being the most common. Next time you plan to travel overseas, think about protecting your community by asking your doctor if you are a candidate for the MMR vaccine before you leave.According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the best place for a baby to sleep is in his parents’ bedroom. He should sleep in his own crib or bassinet (or in a co-sleeper safely attached to the bed), but shouldn’t be in his own room until he is at least 6 months, better 12 months. This is because studies have shown that when babies are close by, it can help reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, or SIDS.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics, however, points out a downside to this: babies don’t sleep as well, and by extension, neither do their parents.

Researchers found that “early independent sleepers,” babies who slept in their own room before 4 months, slept longer, and for longer stretches, than babies who slept in their parents’ room. At 9 months, these babies were better sleepers, not just compared to those who slept in their parents’ room, but also to those who transitioned to their own room between 4 and 9 months.

This is no small thing for sleep-deprived parents. Even a few extra minutes can make all the difference — and given that research suggests that sleeping well in infancy improves the chances of sleeping well in childhood, the study seems to suggest that getting babies out of their parents’ room from the get-go could be a real sanity saver.

The study also found that babies who shared a room with their parents were four times more likely to end up in their parents’ bed during the night — and more likely to have pillows, blankets, and other unsafe stuff around when they sleep. Interestingly, babies who slept in a different room were more likely to have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine, something that has been shown to help babies sleep better.

But as with most things in medicine, it’s not that simple.

As was pointed out in a commentary accompanying the study, early “sleep consolidation,” or sleeping many hours at once, isn’t necessarily a good thing. The ability to wake easily is important and may be critical in preventing SIDS. The waking up that happens with room sharing may be the exact thing that protects the baby.

It should be pointed out, too, that infancy doesn’t last forever. As much as it can feel like an eternity of being woken at night, the fact is that over time, most babies learn to sleep through the night and give their parents a break.

Also, having the baby sleep nearby helps with breastfeeding. It’s a simple fact that because breast milk is digested more quickly than formula, breastfed babies tend to eat more frequently than formula-fed babies. When babies are in another room, it’s harder and mothers may give up and switch to formula earlier.

It would be so easy if there were rules for parenting that worked for every family, but that’s just not the case. Every family and every child is different; in every situation, it’s about weighing risks and benefits.

Room sharing can help prevent SIDS and support breastfeeding, that’s clear. Also, room sharing doesn’t mean that babies can’t have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine; it may be tempting to keep the baby up until the parents go to bed, but it doesn’t have to be that way. But the benefits of room sharing diminish when room sharing becomes bed sharing, or when other rules of safe sleep (like no pillows) get broken. Safe sleep, and good sleep routines, should happen no matter where a baby sleeps.

At the same time, if room sharing means that parents aren’t getting any sleep because they are woken by every baby whimper and squeak, that’s not good for anybody — and if the parents’ relationship is suffering significantly because they don’t feel that they can or should be intimate near the baby, that’s not good for anybody either. What’s important is that parents know the recommendations, and the facts behind those recommendations. Once they have that information, they should work with their pediatrician to make the decisions that make the most sense for their child’s safety, their sanity, and the overall health and well-being of their family.
The United States was declared free from ongoing measles transmission in 2000. So why are we still having measles attacks? An outbreak of measles is currently raging in Minnesota. In 2015, 125 cases of measles occurred in California, and in 2014, 383 people were infected with measles in an Amish community in Ohio.
How measles outbreaks happen

There are several reasons why we are still at risk for measles outbreaks. Travelers may get infected overseas, and bring the measles virus back into the country with them unawares. The 2015 measles outbreak in Ohio began when two infected members of the Amish community returned home from typhoon relief work on the Philippines. The California measles outbreak in 2014 started at two Disney theme parks, perhaps after the virus was brought there by a foreign tourist.

In measles, there is an unusually long delay between infection and the development of the rash and other symptoms, typically about two weeks. Measles virus is also highly contagious; patients start to spread the virus to other people about four days before the rash develops. These features make it possible for measles to spread quickly through an unsuspecting population.

The final component to measles outbreaks is inadequate immunity. Many American adults have only received a single dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is only 93% effective at preventing measles. Since 1989, the recommendation has been to give two doses of MMR, which is 97% protective against measles. Vaccination rates have been low among patients in recent US outbreaks. In the current outbreak in Minnesota, most measles cases have occurred in unvaccinated Somali-American children, probably due to the success of anti-vaccine activists in pushing a debunked connection between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Measles infection can still be lethal

So, what’s the big deal about measles? For most people, measles makes for a miserable week of high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes, and an impressive total body rash. But for others, it can be a life-threatening, even fatal, condition. One out of every 20 measles patients develops pneumonia, which may be severe. Infection of the brain, or encephalitis, occurs in one out of 1,000 cases. Brain damage, deafness, intellectual disability, or death may result. Before the measles vaccine was available, measles killed 500 people in the US every year, most of them children, and led to 1,000 cases of brain damage per year.

Measles has an especially horrifying late complication known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). In SSPE, children recover from their initial measles infection, only to develop progressive brain infection with a mutated form of measles virus in their teenage years, leading to a persistent vegetative state.

Many outbreaks of measles could probably be prevented if more travelers received MMR prior to foreign travel. According to a study done in US travel clinics, 16% of pre-travel patients were eligible for measles vaccine, but only a minority of patients received it. The authors of the study cited many reasons that patients didn’t receive the vaccine, with patient refusal being the most common. Next time you plan to travel overseas, think about protecting your community by asking your doctor if you are a candidate for the MMR vaccine before you leave. Imagine a chronic medical condition in which the treatment itself has serious side effects. Examples of this are plentiful in medicine. For example, in diabetes, giving too much insulin can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition. That doesn’t happen very often, but imagine that it was a common complication of treating diabetes because doctors couldn’t really tell how powerful a given dose of insulin actually was. And suppose that doctors and patient safety experts advocated for places where patients with diabetes could be carefully monitored when taking their insulin. Would you be opposed to this idea? Would you blame the patient for developing diabetes, or for needing this carefully supervised medical treatment in order to live? I suspect that the answer is “of course not!”

Now, let’s shift gears and discuss opioid addiction, specifically people who use illicit drugs like heroin and black-market fentanyl. Heroin is the strong opioid substance derived from the poppy seed that has been used for thousands of years. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be hundreds of times more powerful than morphine or heroin. Increasingly, illicit heroin is adulterated with fentanyl and similar chemicals, which public health experts believe is the reason for the continued rise in opioid-related deaths despite aggressive measures to decrease opioid prescriptions, increase substance use disorder treatment facilities, and widely distribute naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose.
Saving lives in the face of increased risk for dying of a heroin overdose

People who use heroin are now at significant risk for overdose death, mainly because the opioid content can vary considerably from dose to dose. Previously, a little too much could have caused a decrease in respiratory rate and a high dose could lead to overdose. Now, with the variability of potency from the synthetic opioids, the strength of each dose can be markedly different. Furthermore, the uptake of fentanyl in the brain is so rapid that a fatal overdose can occur much more quickly than with heroin alone.

If we, as a society, are truly serious about saving lives, we have no choice but to allow people who use injectable opioids to do so in safe, monitored locations without fear of negative repercussions (e.g., being arrested). If you had asked me about this several years ago, I never would have believed that I could write the preceding sentence. I would have said, “Why empower junkies to abuse illegal drugs? Why make it easier on them instead of harder? Why should society condone this activity?”

However, I was wrong — dead wrong.
Good reasons for a change of heart

It turns out that addiction (called substance use disorder or, more specifically here, opioid use disorder in medical jargon) is a disease that can affect any one of us, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. It does not discriminate and does not represent a moral failure on the part of the individual who develops it. It is a condition that no one chooses, but when it attacks, it changes the brain of those with the disease. We can actually visualize those changes with tests like functional MRIs. It leads people to make choices that destroy their lives and the lives of others, such as loss of job, isolation and loss of relationships, incarceration, and even death. We also now know that this is a treatable disease, but the window for successful treatment depends on the psychological state of the person. We must be ready to engage them in treatment at that moment when they are ready.

My opinions changed drastically after a visit to a local needle exchange facility. By current law, individuals can’t inject inside the building. They have to take their chances outside and then they can come inside to be monitored after injecting. I initially envisioned the facility to be sterile, dirty, and depressing. Instead, I was surprised to see that it looked like a living room. There were sofas and a television. There was a warm light, and it appeared to be a welcoming place. Across from the sofas were two desks where staff members sat. Their job is to watch for any signs of overdose (a person who is too sleepy or who is breathing too slowly) and then rapidly respond by providing a nasal dose of naloxone to reverse the overdose. More importantly, they are there to help people right when they are open to treatment for substance use disorder. The staff will help connect them to treatment resources, whether it is group therapy or medical treatment like buprenorphine (Suboxone) or methadone.

If that moment of opportunity in which the individual is receptive to treatment passes, the consequences can be deadly.

Furthermore, the facility is all about harm reduction. There are boxes of free supplies: needle kits so that people do not share needles, condoms for safe sex, kits to help treat small skin infections, even little clean cups to freebase injectable drugs. Naloxone kits are also provided free of charge. There is no judgment there. It is only about reducing a person’s risk of serious, life-threatening infections like HIV and hepatitis C, or the risk of death. And it makes sense. If we are going to agree that opioid use disorder is just another medical condition that needs to be treated, then the compassionate thing to do is to remove the stigma associated with it and reduce associated harms while a person is suffering with substance use disorder. Plain and simple: people with this disease are going to use drugs. Is it better for them to use in the shadows, risking transmission of serious infectious diseases, or monitor them when they are using and be there for them to get them treatment at the moment they are ready?

Currently it’s still illegal in the US to allow people to inject in these supervised environments, but the tide is turning. The city of Ithaca, NY is contemplating a safe injection space, as is Seattle. Multiple studies have confirmed that they work. In Vancouver, Canada, where such facilities were implemented in 2003, they concluded: “Vancouver’s safer injecting facility has been associated with an array of community and public health benefits without evidence of adverse impacts.” Massachusetts is also contemplating a similar pilot supervised injection facility program. With the crises of the opioid epidemic now claiming more than 30,000 lives every year in the US, it’s time to change our biases and old ways of thinking — people’s lives depend on it.

Imagine a chronic medical condition in which the treatment itself has serious side effects. Examples of this are plentiful in medicine. For example, in diabetes, giving too much insulin can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition. That doesn’t happen very often, but imagine that it was a common complication of treating diabetes because doctors couldn’t really tell how powerful a given dose of insulin actually was. And suppose that doctors and patient safety experts advocated for places where patients with diabetes could be carefully monitored when taking their insulin. Would you be opposed to this idea? Would you blame the patient for developing diabetes, or for needing this carefully supervised medical treatment in order to live? I suspect that the answer is “of course not!”

Now, let’s shift gears and discuss opioid addiction, specifically people who use illicit drugs like heroin and black-market fentanyl. Heroin is the strong opioid substance derived from the poppy seed that has been used for thousands of years. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be hundreds of times more powerful than morphine or heroin. Increasingly, illicit heroin is adulterated with fentanyl and similar chemicals, which public health experts believe is the reason for the continued rise in opioid-related deaths despite aggressive measures to decrease opioid prescriptions, increase substance use disorder treatment facilities, and widely distribute naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose.
Saving lives in the face of increased risk for dying of a heroin overdose

People who use heroin are now at significant risk for overdose death, mainly because the opioid content can vary considerably from dose to dose. Previously, a little too much could have caused a decrease in respiratory rate and a high dose could lead to overdose. Now, with the variability of potency from the synthetic opioids, the strength of each dose can be markedly different. Furthermore, the uptake of fentanyl in the brain is so rapid that a fatal overdose can occur much more quickly than with heroin alone.

If we, as a society, are truly serious about saving lives, we have no choice but to allow people who use injectable opioids to do so in safe, monitored locations without fear of negative repercussions (e.g., being arrested). If you had asked me about this several years ago, I never would have believed that I could write the preceding sentence. I would have said, “Why empower junkies to abuse illegal drugs? Why make it easier on them instead of harder? Why should society condone this activity?”

However, I was wrong — dead wrong.
Good reasons for a change of heart

It turns out that addiction (called substance use disorder or, more specifically here, opioid use disorder in medical jargon) is a disease that can affect any one of us, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. It does not discriminate and does not represent a moral failure on the part of the individual who develops it. It is a condition that no one chooses, but when it attacks, it changes the brain of those with the disease. We can actually visualize those changes with tests like functional MRIs. It leads people to make choices that destroy their lives and the lives of others, such as loss of job, isolation and loss of relationships, incarceration, and even death. We also now know that this is a treatable disease, but the window for successful treatment depends on the psychological state of the person. We must be ready to engage them in treatment at that moment when they are ready.

My opinions changed drastically after a visit to a local needle exchange facility. By current law, individuals can’t inject inside the building. They have to take their chances outside and then they can come inside to be monitored after injecting. I initially envisioned the facility to be sterile, dirty, and depressing. Instead, I was surprised to see that it looked like a living room. There were sofas and a television. There was a warm light, and it appeared to be a welcoming place. Across from the sofas were two desks where staff members sat. Their job is to watch for any signs of overdose (a person who is too sleepy or who is breathing too slowly) and then rapidly respond by providing a nasal dose of naloxone to reverse the overdose. More importantly, they are there to help people right when they are open to treatment for substance use disorder. The staff will help connect them to treatment resources, whether it is group therapy or medical treatment like buprenorphine (Suboxone) or methadone.

If that moment of opportunity in which the individual is receptive to treatment passes, the consequences can be deadly.

Furthermore, the facility is all about harm reduction. There are boxes of free supplies: needle kits so that people do not share needles, condoms for safe sex, kits to help treat small skin infections, even little clean cups to freebase injectable drugs. Naloxone kits are also provided free of charge. There is no judgment there. It is only about reducing a person’s risk of serious, life-threatening infections like HIV and hepatitis C, or the risk of death. And it makes sense. If we are going to agree that opioid use disorder is just another medical condition that needs to be treated, then the compassionate thing to do is to remove the stigma associated with it and reduce associated harms while a person is suffering with substance use disorder. Plain and simple: people with this disease are going to use drugs. Is it better for them to use in the shadows, risking transmission of serious infectious diseases, or monitor them when they are using and be there for them to get them treatment at the moment they are ready?

Currently it’s still illegal in the US to allow people to inject in these supervised environments, but the tide is turning. The city of Ithaca, NY is contemplating a safe injection space, as is Seattle. Multiple studies have confirmed that they work. In Vancouver, Canada, where such facilities were implemented in 2003, they concluded: “Vancouver’s safer injecting facility has been associated with an array of community and public health benefits without evidence of adverse impacts.” Massachusetts is also contemplating a similar pilot supervised injection facility program. With the crises of the opioid epidemic now claiming more than 30,000 lives every year in the US, it’s time to change our biases and old ways of thinking — people’s lives depend on it.

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