The Need for Harm Reduction in an Era of Social Isolation and Rampant Drug Use

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr. George Mathew is a fourth-year medical student at Medical University – Pleven, Bulgaria. He is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writers and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.

Isolation may be the least cumbersome way to kill a man in the 21st century and what the pandemic inadvertently showed may be just that, because as more lockdown restrictions were placed, people became more deprived of human interaction which lead to social isolation, depression, drug use, and death.

The drug overdose deaths in the U.S proves just that with a record 108,000 deaths from drug overdose just in the year 2021, a 15% increase from 2020 which itself had a 30% increase from 2019. A 2/3rd of the drug overdose deaths were from the synthetic opioid Fentanyl which is 100 times more potent than morphine and only 2mg of it is required to have lethal ramifications.

Often Fentanyl is laced in ordinary prescription drugs, like OxyContin (Painkiller), Adderall (ADHD Medication), and Xanax (Anti-anxiety medication) that are acquired illicitly, putting children as young as 12 years old at high risk of overdosing in school bathrooms as they consume these counterfeit pills not knowing that they are laced with Fentanyl.

The need for Harm Reduction is even greater now as we steer away from the pandemic and move towards normalcy. Harm Reduction refers to policies and programs that aim to minimize the negative health, social and legal effects that come with drug use. It accepts the reality of people taking drugs and provides ways to mitigate the damage it causes.

The goals are to:
1. Keep people who use drugs alive and protect their health as much as possible
2. Reduce harm from drug laws and improve existing drug laws
3. Provide various forms of treatment with abstinence from drugs not being mandated

Each policy or program that is implemented is based on studies that prove it to be effective, efficient, and affordable like the:

1. Syringe Services Program:
It provides people with clean syringes and needles for drug use to prevent the transmission of diseases like AIDS or Hepatitis.

2. Drug Checking Equipment:
Providing drug users with Fentanyl Testing Strips allows them to check whether the drugs that they consume are laced with Fentanyl and helps prevent accidental overdose.

3. Naloxone:
It is an effective opioid antidote that can have an immediate effect and should be available and affordable for people who take potent opioid drugs to use in case of emergencies.

4. Overdose Prevention Centers (OPC):
These are supervised injection sites where people bring their own drugs and can use them while having access to clean supplies and assistance in case of a drug overdose. It also provides different addiction treatments (which 30% choose) and also prevents people from consuming drugs alone and potentially dying from them as there are no recorded drug overdose deaths in any OPC in the world.

Providing healthier alternatives and treatment options is imperative. Punishing drug users into abstinence has not proven to work as it only fuels disconnection in an already segregated world.

About the author

George Mathew is a fourth-year medical student at Medical University – Pleven. He is from the state of Kerala in India and is currently living in Pleven, Bulgaria to study medicine.He is part of the Standing Committee on Human Rights and Peace (SCORP) in Pleven and is passionate about issues like modern war crimes, the influence of corporations in governmental policy making, climate change and migration & refugee flows. He is also the current Ambassador to Pleven (Bulgaria) for The European Student Think Tank.

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