opioids international

The US is not the only opioid crisis.

Reblogging:

https://www.groundup.org.za/article/woman-battles-escape-whoonga-park/

Living in the hell of Whoonga Park

Murder, rape, crime, homelessness, abuse by police … daily life for whoonga users

Photo of a woman holding a beaded South African flag
Nobuhle Khuzwayo doing bead work during life skills training at the Denis Hurley Centre. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo
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“Siqalo used to be the most promising child in our house … the last born. He got the best of everything. We took him to better schools than we did his younger sister and brother. He did well for the better half of high school.Then he met up with the wrong friends, and never even got to matric,” Fanele Ngcobo tells GroundUp about his son.

Siqalo is 22. He has been a whoonga user since 2015. By 10am, he has already smoked his second fix. Without the drug he struggles to function. Withdrawal effects – which people refer to as “arosta” – include stomach cramps, vomiting, and extreme anxiety.

Whoonga is a mixture of marijuana and heroin and rumoured to contain anti-retrovirals, detergents and even rat poison. Active addiction has spread in KwaZulu-Natal townships such as KwaMashu and iNanda. Hundreds of people now live in Durban’s ‘Whoonga Park’,

Siqalo was a keen soccer player, says his mother, Sizakele. Now his worn, black soccer shoes peek out from under the bed in his old room at home in iNanda, Durban.

“He always went for practice with his friends at the local playground. But after a while, soccer wasn’t the only thing he and his friends were playing with; he was also experimenting with dangerous drugs,” she says.

Siqalo lives in so-called Whoonga Park, under a bridge next to the Berea railway lines in Durban. The park has become a den for whoonga users. They have bright beach umbrellas to protect them from the heat and black plastic bags for shelter. The activities under the bridge are in plain view. People trade and smoke. In the afternoons and at night, many take to the city streets to hustle for food and the money they need to buy their fix.

“There are no beds here. Even if you can get a blanket or sheet to sleep in, it doesn’t last a week. The police will burn it,” says Siqalo. “So it’s easier just to use cardboard and plastic as it is easy to find in the streets. Although I miss home, I cannot go back home like this. I need to be clean. My family doesn’t trust me around the house and for good reason because I’ve stolen their money and appliances too many times. I tried to be clean when they first fetched me, but arosta is too painful – nobody can understand. But I still want to go home.”

Cooked meals, showers and clean clothes

Nobuhle Khuzwayo from eMpangeni, KwaZulu-Natal, is one of those trying to get off whoonga. She attends the iSiphephelo Centre housed at the Denis Hurley Centre in Durban, where she gets cooked meals and clean clothes three times a week. For a few hours she is free of whoonga.

Co-founder of the centre Sihle Ndima says it is a place of safety for young girls and women living on the streets of Durban. It offers meals, counselling, clean clothes and showers.

“Many of them return back to the streets soon after classes, and the work we do seems like failure, because in the end they go back to using whoonga,” says Ndima. “We work with a rehabilitation centre in Newlands East, Durban, and they offer free help.”

Khuzwayo, who is 30, came to Durban seeking a job in 2014, but after numerous failed attempts, she was left homeless and desperate.

“The shoe factory I was working for closed down after a month. Thereafter it was difficult to get employment. I had been staying at the Dalton hostel with some friends, who later introduced me to smoking. They would tell me it was marijuana, but after becoming a frequent smoker … I would get headaches, pains and stomach cramps when I hadn’t smoked. I just could not cope without it. When I confronted them, they told me it was in fact whoonga. I was already deeply hooked,” says Khuzwayo.

She could no longer live at the hostel. She moved to Whoonga Park. To get money she would have to resort to sex work, crime or selling cigarettes. She found a boyfriend who sold cigarettes at taxi ranks to help get them food and the R30 a day they needed to buy whoonga.

“To survive on the streets, I got myself a boyfriend because you can’t survive a day alone under the bridge as a woman. There are men known as amaBhariya, who claim to own the spots in Whoonga Park. They do not smoke or deal the drug; they do not speak local languages or even English. They are ruthless. They rape and kill women under the bridge and make sure the park functions the way it does. They wear blue workmen’s clothes and hats and use the underground drains to move around. So if you don’t have a man to protect you, they will always take advantage of you,” says Khuzwayo.

Merchants outside the park sell whoonga for R30. “They are usually in the streets or in nearby flats but not many sell whoonga under the bridge,” she says.

Hundreds now live in Whoonga Park beside the railway lines in Berea, Durban. Photo: Nomfundo Xolo

Khuzwayo has now moved to a local shelter, paying R20 a night. Her closest friend had TB and when she died it was a turning point.

“I am tired of this life. I am determined to change. I don’t want to die a senseless death without dignity,” she says.

She is now a part-time cleaner at iSiphephelo. After attending all counselling and life skills classes she will qualify for rehab. “After rehab, I am going to go back home and stay with my sister in eMpangeni. You cannot stay away from whoonga in the city,” says Khuzwayo.

Siqalo and Khuzwayo say whoonga users are known as amaPhara. “Because we look like zombies. We’re dead people walking. We sleep standing. We stab you for your phone and sell it for a fix. Plastic and rubble is our shelter, faeces and rubbish are everywhere, and we run from police who destroy our things and chase us away every week. But we always come back. We can’t survive anywhere else,” says Siqalo.

Khuzwayo says she has seen people high on whoonga killed by trains.

“You can’t save them, because it’s like the railway shocks you, and you’re unable to move … seeing the train come at you but unable to run. I’ve seen some getting crushed in half and some losing their limbs. Even a security guard, who was chasing us one time, got stuck and the train crushed his foot.”

“One way or the other, you’re lucky to survive under the bridge.”

reblogged from: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/woman-battles-escape-whoonga-park/

Weaning methadone

Weaning high dose methadone down to a lower, safer, less likely to stop breathing and die dose is difficult, but it can be done. It needs both a determined patient and a determined physician who are willing to work together.

In 2010 I took a class in buprenorphine treatment for opiate overuse syndrome from the University of WA Medical Center and got started with their telemedicine, once a week, on line with the Pain and Addiction Clinic. Each week there was a teaching half hour and then an hour where we could present patients anonymously on the telemedecine to a panel: a pain specialist, an addiction specialist, a psychiatrist, a physiatrist, and a guest physician. Five consults at once! And they would discuss the case and fax recommendations to me.

Three weeks after the course, police and Medicaid and the DEA shut down the pain clinic 5 blocks from me, taking the computers. I acquired 30 patients in 3 weeks. Trial by fire.

By 2012 Washington State passed a pain medicine law. This says that a primary care physician can only prescribe up to 120 morphine dose equivalents for chronic pain. Anything higher and the patient should be checked by a pain specialist and there were not that many in the state.

120 morphine dose equivalents is up to 20 mg of methadone or possibly 30mg. Methadone has a very long half life so it’s a bit weird. Hydrocodone is one to one with morphine and oxycodone is 1.5 to one, so 90 mg of oxycodone is 120 morphine dose equivalents.

The law requires urine drug screens, careful record keeping, screening for adverse childhood experiences and regular visits. If the pain medicine is not effective, it is to be weaned. I had a couple of patients with over 100mg of methadone daily. That is way over the 120 morphine does equivalents and UW helped me help the patients start weaning.

First, they recommended dropping the dose by about 1/3. Some patients left immediately. I would give patients links to the law on line and explain that the concern is that opioids in combination with other sedating drugs and alcohol are killing more people than either guns or car wrecks or illegal drugs in the United States and the CDC has declared it an epidemic. Honestly, doctors really take the “first, do no harm” seriously and we do not want to kill people. One angry patient said “Your first job is to keep me pain free.” I said, “No, my first job is to not kill you.”

For those who stayed, dropping the dose by 1/4 or 1/3 worked. They had about two weeks of mild withdrawal symptoms and then gradually felt better. These were at doses of 120-150mg methadone daily. We started weaning then by 10mg or about 10% every couple of months. The UW Pain Clinic was doing this simultaneously.

In 2012 the WA PMP started as well. This is a central pharmacy reporting for all controlled substances. Controlled substances means addictive and monitored by the DEA. Even the head of the WA Pain Clinic found that he had 5-6 patients who were getting opioids from 4-5 different doctors. He said, “We do have to check because I thought I knew my patients and I would have none. I was wrong and I was surprised.” Those patients could be taking way more than any of their doctors knew or could be selling pills. Not a happy thing.

Once the methadone folks got down to about 1/3 of the high dose, we had to slow down. For my patients that meant at 40-50mg. The head of the pain clinic said wean by 5 mg or 2.5mg and do it every 6-8 weeks.

As people were weaned, their pain level stayed about the same. They would have an initial increase for the first two weeks. I describe it as follows: Think of it as if you are in a room listening to a stereo. The pain medicine is like noise protecting headphones. Once you are wearing the headphones, your brain says, uh, I can’t hear (feel pain). Hearing (feeling pain) is important information, so the brain turns up the volume. Way up if the dose is really high. Then you take the headphones off: OW!! IT’S TOO LOUD! THE SOUND (PAIN) IS BLOWING OUT YOUR EARDRUMS (HURTING LIKE HELL)!!!

Weaning slowly gives the brain a chance to turn the volume down on the receptors. UW said that at best chronic opiates lower pain an average of 30%. After a while, I said I had trouble telling the difference between withdrawal pain and increased chronic pain: they look the same. UW said, “Looks the same to us too.” But we had frequent visits and an ongoing discussion about pain. Pain is necessary for survival: you have to know if you are injured. Diabetics who can’t feel their feet are instructed to look all over their feet every day to check for injury and infection. I had one gentleman who couldn’t feel his feet and put them on a wood stove because they felt cold. He was needing skin grafts from the burns. So we need to feel pain and not numb it all the time. Also pain has three or more componants: the sharp cut/broken/bruised immediate pain. Second is nerve pain. Third is emotional pain, and we don’t yet have a meter that gives us what percentage each is contributing to the total sum. When I have a new chronic pain patient, I say that ALL THREE must be treated. We can argue about the details, but they can’t leave the emotional piece out…. or they have to find another doctor.

Also, at the higher doses, hyperalgesia is common, pain from the opioid itself. People felt better at lower doses. I gave people the links so they could read the law and the CDC information themselves. They were shocked and angry and threatened at first, but the “I don’t want you to die from too high a dose and it’s not safe and I am sorry.” message would get through eventually.

“Why do you have to do urine drug screens?” say some people. “You are treating me like an addict.”

My reply, “What do you think the addicts tell me?”

The person thinks about it. “The same thing?”

“Absolutely. So I can’t tell unless I check. Also, the boundary between chronic opiate use and opiate overuse is a lot thinner than we thought, so I have to check because all chronic opiate people are at risk for overuse.” The DSM-V combines opioid dependence and opiate addiction into opiate overuse syndrome, a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe.

We also talked about other ways of dealing with chronic pain. John Kabat Zinn’s mindfulness meditation classes drop pain levels by an average of 50%, so better than opioids. And way safer.

Meanwhile, since people could no longer get opioid pills from 4-5 doctors at once, the supply in Washington started drying up. Some people realized they had opiate overuse syndrome as well as chronic pain and turned to methadone clinics or buprenorphine clinics. Others went to heroin. The heroin overdose death rate has risen. I hope that as the stigma surrounding “addiction” changes into a better understanding of chronic pain and opiate overuse syndrome, more people will be able to get treatment and the death rate and heroin use will go back down.

https://depts.washington.edu/anesth/care/pain/pain-roosevelt.shtml

http://www.cdc.gov/cdcgrandrounds/archives/2011/01-february.htm

http://www.doh.wa.gov/ForPublicHealthandHealthcareProviders/HealthcareProfessionsandFacilities/PainManagement

http://www.doh.wa.gov/ForPublicHealthandHealthcareProviders/HealthcareProfessionsandFacilities/PrescriptionMonitoringProgramPMP

http://www.uwmedicine.org/referrals/telehealth-services

https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/what-are-opioids

http://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/about-us/people/2-meet-our-faculty/kabat-zinn-profile/

 

 

Chronic pain and antidepressants

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Alcohol

Let’s talk about alcohol.

I am a family practice physician and I talk to people of all ages about alcohol. The current recommendation is no more than one drink daily for women and two drinks daily for men, no saving it up for the weekend.

“What?” you say “No way. Come on, that’s ridiculous.”

My patients don’t say “That’s ridiculous.” After all, they are paying me to do a physical exam and a preventative exam. I am supposed to give them advice. But what is the basis for that?

One drink is defined as a regulation 12 oz beer or 6 ounces of wine or one ounce of hard liquor. If it is a high alcohol beer or wine, the amount is less.

It is NOT the liver doctors that have given us these numbers. It is the cardiologists, the heart doctors. One drink in women or two in men, lowers blood pressure and in general, has good effects. Go over that daily and there is a rebound in blood pressure as the alcohol wears off. Alcohol works in the same way as benzodiazepines: it makes people less anxious and more relaxed and lowers inhibitions. Both alcohol and benzodiazepines are addictive in the long term.

Cardiologists qualify this recommendation as follows: there is no recommended daily amount of alcohol that is considered heart protective because there are too many alcoholics. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for an alcoholic is none. The recommended daily amount of alcohol for the general population is none.

Alcohol withdrawal can be very very dangerous medically. I think that the three most difficult things to quit are heroin, methamphetamines and cigarettes, but alcohol is more dangerous. In heroin withdrawal all of the pain receptors fire at once, so it is torture, but people don’t die. With serious alcohol withdrawal, the blood pressure skyrockets and the person can have seizures, a stroke, a heart attack, delerium tremens and can die. In the hospital, benzodiazepines are used to slow the withdrawal, replacing alcohol in a controlled manner.

Alcohol does more than affect the blood pressure. Over time, alcohol can damage the heart and lead to congestive heart failure. Of course, you know that it can damage the liver and lead to cirrhosis. Cirrhosis is sneaky: as long as there are a few functioning liver cells, the lab work can look pretty normal. The liver makes proteins for the blood and makes proteins that allow our blood to clot. Once there aren’t enough healthy cells to make those proteins, alcoholics will bleed quite spectacularly. If the amount of the protein albumin in their blood is low, fluid leaks from the blood into the tissues: so whatever part is “dependent”, that is, lowest, will be swollen. Alcoholics can have legs with swelling where I can push with my finger and there is a two or three cm dimple. Alcohol also can lead to gastritis and ulcers. If someone can’t clot and they are vomiting blood from an ulcer, the doctor gets a tummyache too, from worrying. Ow. The liver is also supposed to filter all of the blood in the body. As the liver gets blocked with dead liver cells, the blood starts to bypass it. The bypass is through blood vessels in the stomach. Remember that person vomiting blood? The swollen vessels in the stomach are called varicies and we don’t like them to bleed. They are big, swollen and can bleed really really fast. The person can die. I don’t like transfusing and really don’t like transfusing 12 units of blood. In end stage alcoholism, the liver no longer lowers the blood level of ammonia. Ammonia crosses the blood brain barrier and poisons the brain. We haven’t even discussed the lack of vitamin B12 and thiamine which can cause unraveling of the myelin sheaths on the long fibers in the spinal cord: this means that the person gets permanent asterixis and “walks like a drunk” even when they are sober. I’m sure I haven’t remembered all of the consequences of alcohol, but that will do for now, right?

How much alcohol daily causes the above charming picture? We Don’t Know. Really. And it is not okay to do randomized double blinded clinical trials to find out. Same with pregnant women: we don’t know if there is a safe amount of alcohol during pregnancy and we bloody well can’t test it. It is safer not to drink while you are pregnant.

In clinic, I ask how much people drink. If they say 1-2 drinks daily, I ask what the drink is. Sometimes they look confused. I explain that I have one patient who has two drinks a day: however, it is a 12 ounce glass with a little ice and a lot of whiskey. I asked him to estimate how much whiskey and he said, “6-8 ounces.” That is, each glass is 6-8 ounces. His blood pressure is not under control and so far I feel like a failure as a doctor with him; he is NOT reducing the amount. In medical school, the two jokes were: How much alcohol is too much? More than your doctor drinks. And: How much does the patient drink? Double or triple what they tell us.

The popular word in college used to be that you could drink one drink an hour and still be “okay”. “Okay” to drive and it would wear off. Sorry, nope. Breathalyzers are now pretty cheap; buy one if you are drinking more than the 1-2 per day. And the college students that are binge drinking 6-8 or more drinks on Friday and Saturday. It DOES have long term effects and it IS doing damage.

Lastly, sleep and depression. If you are having trouble sleeping, don’t drink. No alcohol at all. Alcohol is a depressant. It helps people to fall asleep. But they do not have “normal sleep architecture” and it works AGAINST them staying asleep. People often wake up as the alcohol wears off. And the blood pressure is having that rebound, remember, and often their heart will race. That is withdrawal. If you are having trouble sleeping or you are depressed, do not take a depressant. It makes it worse.

I saw a nineteen year old in clinic who admitted to “occasional” heroin use. “But I’m not addicted,” she said. I said, “Well, that’s good. But I took care of a bunch of people undergoing heroin withdrawal while I was in residency and it looked like one of the most painful things on the planet. So I would advise you to quit while you are ahead.” I saw her a year later and she said, “When I tried to quit, it WAS hard. I was addicted and didn’t know it. I’m off now and I won’t go back.” So if you tell me, no problem, I can quit alcohol any time, I say more power to you. Show me. And if it’s harder than you think, get help.