College of Medicine & Veterinary Medicine

Methadone saves lives, study finds

Methadone treatment improves long-term survival of drug users and reduces mortality, a study has shown.

Research carried out by the universities of Bristol, Cambridge and Edinburgh found that opiate substitution treatment reduced the frequency of drug use.

The treatment also led to a drop in the risk of death by 13 per cent each year.

However, the study also showed that treatment did not reduce the overall duration of injecting.

Heroin substitutes

The team analysed the drug use patterns of almost 800 injecting drug users in Edinburgh from 1980 to 2007.

The team say the findings support the long term use of opiate substitution treatment (methadone), even in those who continue their drug use.

Heroin, by injection, is an important public health problem, affecting about one per cent of young adults in the UK.

It raises a person’s risk of death by over ten times that of the general population.

Researchers found that those prescribed methadone reduced their frequency of injecting drugs.

However, the overall number of years of injecting was prolonged compared to people who received little or no methadone.

The team also found that a history of imprisonment was associated both with an increased risk of death and a longer duration of injecting.

This study confirms that methadone works and works best when prescribed for as long as is needed. Even though some users continue to occasionally inject while on methadone, they still gain substantial health benefits from their prescription. Suggestions that methadone prescribing should be cut back or used in the short-term are clearly misplaced and would lead to poorer health for drug injectors.

Dr Roy RoberstonHonorary Clinical Reader, Centre for Population Health Sciences

Public health issue

Injecting drug use is a common, chronic condition associated with substantial excess death and illness. The main treatment is methadone or other forms of opiate substitution therapy.

The new study shows that lives are saved over the long-term, but not necessarily through reducing the overall duration of injecting.

The implications for policy are that there is a balance between saving lives and achieving abstinence from injecting heroin use and that the improvements in survival and other outcomes increase with length of treatment.

The study is available online and will be published in the British Medical Journal on 17 July.

The research was funded by the Chief Scientist Office.