intravenous drugs

The Dangerous New Disease in Needle Park

From The Fix:

Since the start of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, public health professionals have made impressive progress in developing prevention programs that stop HIV and hepatitis C in injection drug users; thousands of lives have been saved. But there’s a less recognized—and growing—danger with the potential to wreak havoc on the bodies of drug users and to burden the healthcare system with steep financial costs…

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How Do Drugs Lead To Diseases Like AIDS And Hepatitis?

Drugs (including alcohol) lead to physical problems in three ways. First of all, the drugs themselves can damage bodily systems. Cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, alcoholic dementia, neurological damage due to heavy drug use, premature aging and diseases of the circulatory system are examples of direct harm to the body. The association of drug use with diseases such as HIV/AIDS, hepatitis and other pathogenic diseases (diseases caused by bacteria or virus) is less obvious, until we look at it closely.

Why do people abuse drugs? In every case, it is because we want to change the way we feel. Non-addicts want to feel differently from their “normal” state of mind and body. Addicts, on the other hand, want to feel better — because they hurt emotionally, and often physically, when they don’t use.

Photo: Don Hankins – Flickr

If there is one thing we can say about all drugs of abuse, it is that they change our view of the world. They may make us more cheerful, give us more energy, make us sleepy, cause euphoria, enable us to concentrate or perform at a higher level physically, make us feel “peaced out,” or combinations of these things. Frequently they make us stupid, as well.

A sober person might not pick up a stranger and have unprotected sex but, as we know, everyone becomes a prince or a princess as the evening wears on and intoxication increases. So we do things like having sex with strangers, sometimes prostitutes, and sometimes in ways that we might not consider if we were not impaired.

The same is true of intravenous drug users. A sober person might never consider sharing needles or “works” with someone else, taking the risk of injecting blood-borne pathogens like the hepatitis and HIV viruses. However, the rituals of sharing are a part of the drug subculture for many people, from drinking with a buddy to sharing a joint to sharing needles and syringes. Furthermore, when an addict is in the throes of withdrawal, his or her interest is decidedly not on hygiene. Hepatitis and HIV are not uncommon problems among addicts, along with a variety of other blood-borne diseases.

The third effect of alcohol and other drugs on health comes from self-neglect. People who are drunk or high, or busy seeking the means to become so, are less likely to pay attention to things like nutrition, medical and dental care, personal hygiene, exercise and the other things that make up a healthy lifestyle. Alcoholics, in particular, are likely to be heavy users of cigarettes and other tobacco products. Years of that sort of neglect take their toll, and also increase the damage from other potential health hazards.

That is why virtually all addicts and alcoholics who do not recover are eventually killed by their disease. An alcoholic who burns to death from smoking in bed is killed by addiction as surely as the victim who dies with a needle in his arm.  Finally, however, the greatest hazard is not from overdose or accidents, but simply from the body’s inability to deal with the abuses that it suffers due to the addictive lifestyle.