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HOT TOPICS: Drug and Alcohol Treatment  Heroin

George Soros Unleashes "Methadone Man"

A new comic book published by billionaire George Soros urges addicts to use methadone and buprenorphine to combat withdrawal and AIDS.

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A new dynamic duo

By Jennifer Matesa

08/26/11

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Billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Institute—which runs an international harm reduction effort as part of its health program—has just released a graphic novel to promote the fact that methadone and buprenorphine maintenance programs dramatically cut the rates of HIV infection in countries where the epidemic is skyrocketing. The 24-page comic book, Methadone Man and Buprenorphine Babe, stars a dynamic superhero duo pushing back against the worldwide War on Drugs to advocate drug-maintenance—both as a tool to treat addiction and to stop the spread of AIDS. “Methadone stops HIV in its tracks!” declares Methadone Man, the comic's caped crusader. “Buprenorphine each day keeps injection away!” adds his comely pal, "Bupe Babe." Designed to reach young people in the developed and developing worlds, the glossy comics are a far cry from the ones you grew up with as a kid. They're also bound to raise some hackles among anti-drug groups who feel that Methadone is a poor substitute for outright abstinence.

Methadone, a synthetic long-acting full-agonist opioid drug, has been used in medication-assisted addiction treatment (MAT) for decades to block addicts' cravings for narcotics such as heroin and Oxycontin. Buprenorphine—AKA Suboxone, Subutex or "bupe"—is a newer synthetic long-acting partial-agonist opioid. Developed for pain treatment and to conduct short-term detoxes from full-agonist drugs, it's increasingly being used as a maintenance drug by many doctors. Like methadone, Buprenephorine can block cravings and prevent addicts engaging in criminal or unhealthy activities—like needle-sharing—to support their habits. Outside sub-Saharan Africa, one third of HIV infections are attributed to IV drug users sharing unsanitary works—IV drug use accounts for 10% of new infections around the world. The World Health Organization calls methadone and buprenorphine “essential medicines,” and they're recognized as such by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNAIDS, and other international organizations. Methadone and bupe are available to drug addicts in 65 countries, but because of onerous restrictions they fail to reach many who could benefit, an Open Society report says. The comic book contains startling stats about the link between addiction and HIV: In Vietnam IV drug users account for 65% of HIV infections, but fewer than 0.5% have access to drug maintenance; HIV has reached epidemic levels among IV drug users in Russia—37% of Russian IV drug users reportedly have HIV, and they make up 80% of new cases—yet Russia has outlawed methadone and bupe; Poland has limited its drug maintenance program to just 1,000 people; 88 countries have IV drug-use problems but no MAT programs.

The Open Society’s program is part of a larger effort to lower HIV infection rates among injection drug users. The recent International AIDS Conference in Vienna declared that the War on Drugs is helping to spread AIDS and called for a policy overhaul. The Vienna Declaration was signed by thousands of people worldwide, including the Nobel-laureate co-discoverer of the HIV virus and other prominent health-policy figures. President Obama’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief also reportedly endorses MAT and harm-reduction strategies. A raft of methadone treatment programs were recently initiated in countries including Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Morocco, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In countries that already have MAT programs, like Georgia, Kyrgyszstan and Indonesia, IV addicts face prohibitively long waiting lists. The Open Society’s five-point harm reduction approach to reducing HIV infection also includes increasing needle exchanges, legal reform to end the focus on criminalizing addicts, increasing the availability of antiretroviral treatment, and teaching addicts to take care of their sexual health.

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