Safe injection sites and reducing the stigma of addiction

It’s the end of the school year, the time of graduation speeches, of looking back at accomplishments and making plans for new ones. It’s a time when many parents think about their hopes and dreams for their children, whether they are graduating or just learning to walk.

As parents, we tend to think about getting good grades, excelling at athletics, being popular, getting into good schools, and getting good jobs. All of this is great, of course. But there is something that children need if they are going to truly succeed in life, and that’s resilience.

Resilience is the ability to overcome hardship and be okay. It’s the ability to navigate life’s inevitable bumps and still be happy and healthy and stay on track. What worries me sometimes is that our current parenting culture of achievement and obsessing over safety — and the way that electronic devices have become so ubiquitous — may get in the way of learning resilience.

According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, there are four factors that help children develop resilience. They are:

    Supportive adult-child relationships. This is crucial. All it really takes is one supportive, nurturing relationship to make all the difference. This gives children a buffer, and helps them know that they aren’t alone and that they matter to someone. While all parents want to have a good relationship with their child, the demands of daily life can get in the way. Try to spend regular time with your child when they have your undivided attention. Ask about their day, get involved in activities they enjoy, spend time doing things together. Make sure your child knows that no matter what, you have their back — and you will love them.
    A sense of self-efficacy and perceived control. Basically, you want to help a child learn that they can manage, and that even if things go wrong, they can figure a way through. You can’t do this just by telling your child that he is smart and capable; he needs to learn it himself. Bit by bit, giving independence, letting children make decisions and take risks helps them learn to weather life’s storms. It’s not always easy to let children take risks —we never want them to be hurt, emotionally or physically — but with you at their back, and in a gradual way, most children can and do manage just fine. Learning this also involves shutting off the screens and being active. Learning to be physically capable is important. In being active, in running and climbing and other such activities, children learn not just their strengths and limitations but how to plan and troubleshoot.
    Strong adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities. This is what we call “executive function.” It’s like the air traffic controller functions of life: the ability to prioritize, not get distracted, make a plan, negotiate, get along with others, and manage emotions. These are not easy tasks, and there is no way to learn them without practice. One of the best ways for children to practice is through unstructured playtime, either alone (so they can find ways to entertain themselves) or with others (so they can learn how to work with others). Consistent discipline, not giving in to tantrums, and helping children manage sadness or frustration rather than just fixing things for them, can also help. The Center on the Developing child also has suggestions on activities to support executive function at different ages.
    Being able to mobilize sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions. It helps to be part of something bigger, to have community, to have traditions that help you through difficult times. This doesn’t mean that you need to join a faith if you don’t belong to one. But if you do, maybe you could go to services a bit more often. If you don’t, spending time with extended family, joining a community group, taking part in service opportunities together… these activities can help give your child a perspective on life, as well as strategies for handling challenges. Because ultimately, the ability to keep perspective and handle challenges is what gets us through and helps us succeed.
When I was a kid, my summer sport of choice was baseball. Every day I played in marathon neighborhood games until it was too dark to see the ball. It was about fun and not fitness. But now that I’m older, and my Louisville Slugger has been officially retired, I need a summertime sport that recaptures the playfulness of my youth, but also works to keep my physical and mental skills sharp.

So, I picked up a racket.

It turns out that racket sports are not only fun, but they may help me live longer. A study published online by the British Journal of Sports Medicine examined the link between six different types of exercise and the risk of early death. Researched looked at racket sports, swimming, aerobics, cycling, running, and soccer. Study volunteers included 80,306 people, who ranged in age from 30 to 98. Over the course of the study’s nine years, those who regularly played racket sports were 47% less likely to die of any cause and 56% less likely to die of cardiovascular disease.

“In many ways, racket sports like tennis, squash, badminton, racquetball, Ping-Pong, and other variations are the ideal exercise for many older adults,” says Vijay A. Daryanani, a physical therapist and personal trainer with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Outpatient Center. “Besides offering a good cardiovascular workout, they can help with both upper- and lower-body strength at one time. They can be played at any age, can be modified to fit most fitness levels, and do not involve a lot of equipment.”
Body and mind games

Racket sports offer something other fitness sports do not — lateral movement. “Most of our lives are spent moving forward, and that includes our exercise,” says Daryanani. “Racket sports force you to move both back and forth and side to side. This helps improve balance and weight shifting, which can lower your risk of falls.”

This kind of activity also exercises your mind. From a cognitive standpoint, it sharpens your planning and decision-making skills, as you must constantly anticipate and execute your next shot.

Racket sports also serve up a strong social component. You play against other people — either as a single or part of a doubles team — while other exercises like running, swimming, and cycling are more isolated activities. Frequent social contact is essential for a long and healthy life. In fact, a 2012 study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that loneliness was associated with functional decline and an increased risk of death among adults older than age 60.
Pick up pickleball

While there are many types of racket sports to try, one of the fastest-growing among older adults is “pickleball.” It’s a hybrid sport that blends tennis, table tennis, and the backyard childhood game of Wiffle ball.

The paddle is between a table tennis paddle and a tennis racket in size and made of lightweight composite material, such as aluminum or graphite, which cuts down on fatigue. The plastic pickleball resembles a larger Wiffle ball and travels about one-third the speed of a tennis ball, so it is easier to see and hit.

Pickleball is played both indoors and outdoors. The court is 20 by 44 feet, or about the size of a double badminton court. The net is shorter than a tennis net, which makes it easier to hit over. Here are the basic rules:

    The ball is served underhanded and must land in the opposite diagonal court just beyond a 10-foot area by the net called the “kitchen.”
    The ball must bounce once before being returned, and again before being returned by the serving team.
    Once the ball has bounced and been returned by each team, volleying may continue with or without bounces, only if participants are outside of the kitchen.
    Games are played to 11 points, with points scored only by the serving team.
    A two-point spread wins the game.
The United States was declared free from ongoing measles transmission in 2000. So why are we still having measles attacks? An outbreak of measles is currently raging in Minnesota. In 2015, 125 cases of measles occurred in California, and in 2014, 383 people were infected with measles in an Amish community in Ohio.
How measles outbreaks happen

There are several reasons why we are still at risk for measles outbreaks. Travelers may get infected overseas, and bring the measles virus back into the country with them unawares. The 2015 measles outbreak in Ohio began when two infected members of the Amish community returned home from typhoon relief work on the Philippines. The California measles outbreak in 2014 started at two Disney theme parks, perhaps after the virus was brought there by a foreign tourist.

In measles, there is an unusually long delay between infection and the development of the rash and other symptoms, typically about two weeks. Measles virus is also highly contagious; patients start to spread the virus to other people about four days before the rash develops. These features make it possible for measles to spread quickly through an unsuspecting population.

The final component to measles outbreaks is inadequate immunity. Many American adults have only received a single dose of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which is only 93% effective at preventing measles. Since 1989, the recommendation has been to give two doses of MMR, which is 97% protective against measles. Vaccination rates have been low among patients in recent US outbreaks. In the current outbreak in Minnesota, most measles cases have occurred in unvaccinated Somali-American children, probably due to the success of anti-vaccine activists in pushing a debunked connection between autism and the MMR vaccine.
Measles infection can still be lethal

So, what’s the big deal about measles? For most people, measles makes for a miserable week of high fever, cough, runny nose, watery eyes, and an impressive total body rash. But for others, it can be a life-threatening, even fatal, condition. One out of every 20 measles patients develops pneumonia, which may be severe. Infection of the brain, or encephalitis, occurs in one out of 1,000 cases. Brain damage, deafness, intellectual disability, or death may result. Before the measles vaccine was available, measles killed 500 people in the US every year, most of them children, and led to 1,000 cases of brain damage per year.

Measles has an especially horrifying late complication known as subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE). In SSPE, children recover from their initial measles infection, only to develop progressive brain infection with a mutated form of measles virus in their teenage years, leading to a persistent vegetative state.

Many outbreaks of measles could probably be prevented if more travelers received MMR prior to foreign travel. According to a study done in US travel clinics, 16% of pre-travel patients were eligible for measles vaccine, but only a minority of patients received it. The authors of the study cited many reasons that patients didn’t receive the vaccine, with patient refusal being the most common. Next time you plan to travel overseas, think about protecting your community by asking your doctor if you are a candidate for the MMR vaccine before you leave. Imagine a chronic medical condition in which the treatment itself has serious side effects. Examples of this are plentiful in medicine. For example, in diabetes, giving too much insulin can cause hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition. That doesn’t happen very often, but imagine that it was a common complication of treating diabetes because doctors couldn’t really tell how powerful a given dose of insulin actually was. And suppose that doctors and patient safety experts advocated for places where patients with diabetes could be carefully monitored when taking their insulin. Would you be opposed to this idea? Would you blame the patient for developing diabetes, or for needing this carefully supervised medical treatment in order to live? I suspect that the answer is “of course not!”

Now, let’s shift gears and discuss opioid addiction, specifically people who use illicit drugs like heroin and black-market fentanyl. Heroin is the strong opioid substance derived from the poppy seed that has been used for thousands of years. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be hundreds of times more powerful than morphine or heroin. Increasingly, illicit heroin is adulterated with fentanyl and similar chemicals, which public health experts believe is the reason for the continued rise in opioid-related deaths despite aggressive measures to decrease opioid prescriptions, increase substance use disorder treatment facilities, and widely distribute naloxone, the antidote to opioid overdose.
Saving lives in the face of increased risk for dying of a heroin overdose

People who use heroin are now at significant risk for overdose death, mainly because the opioid content can vary considerably from dose to dose. Previously, a little too much could have caused a decrease in respiratory rate and a high dose could lead to overdose. Now, with the variability of potency from the synthetic opioids, the strength of each dose can be markedly different. Furthermore, the uptake of fentanyl in the brain is so rapid that a fatal overdose can occur much more quickly than with heroin alone.

If we, as a society, are truly serious about saving lives, we have no choice but to allow people who use injectable opioids to do so in safe, monitored locations without fear of negative repercussions (e.g., being arrested). If you had asked me about this several years ago, I never would have believed that I could write the preceding sentence. I would have said, “Why empower junkies to abuse illegal drugs? Why make it easier on them instead of harder? Why should society condone this activity?”

However, I was wrong — dead wrong.
Good reasons for a change of heart

It turns out that addiction (called substance use disorder or, more specifically here, opioid use disorder in medical jargon) is a disease that can affect any one of us, just like diabetes or high blood pressure. It does not discriminate and does not represent a moral failure on the part of the individual who develops it. It is a condition that no one chooses, but when it attacks, it changes the brain of those with the disease. We can actually visualize those changes with tests like functional MRIs. It leads people to make choices that destroy their lives and the lives of others, such as loss of job, isolation and loss of relationships, incarceration, and even death. We also now know that this is a treatable disease, but the window for successful treatment depends on the psychological state of the person. We must be ready to engage them in treatment at that moment when they are ready.

My opinions changed drastically after a visit to a local needle exchange facility. By current law, individuals can’t inject inside the building. They have to take their chances outside and then they can come inside to be monitored after injecting. I initially envisioned the facility to be sterile, dirty, and depressing. Instead, I was surprised to see that it looked like a living room. There were sofas and a television. There was a warm light, and it appeared to be a welcoming place. Across from the sofas were two desks where staff members sat. Their job is to watch for any signs of overdose (a person who is too sleepy or who is breathing too slowly) and then rapidly respond by providing a nasal dose of naloxone to reverse the overdose. More importantly, they are there to help people right when they are open to treatment for substance use disorder. The staff will help connect them to treatment resources, whether it is group therapy or medical treatment like buprenorphine (Suboxone) or methadone.

If that moment of opportunity in which the individual is receptive to treatment passes, the consequences can be deadly.

Furthermore, the facility is all about harm reduction. There are boxes of free supplies: needle kits so that people do not share needles, condoms for safe sex, kits to help treat small skin infections, even little clean cups to freebase injectable drugs. Naloxone kits are also provided free of charge. There is no judgment there. It is only about reducing a person’s risk of serious, life-threatening infections like HIV and hepatitis C, or the risk of death. And it makes sense. If we are going to agree that opioid use disorder is just another medical condition that needs to be treated, then the compassionate thing to do is to remove the stigma associated with it and reduce associated harms while a person is suffering with substance use disorder. Plain and simple: people with this disease are going to use drugs. Is it better for them to use in the shadows, risking transmission of serious infectious diseases, or monitor them when they are using and be there for them to get them treatment at the moment they are ready?

Currently it’s still illegal in the US to allow people to inject in these supervised environments, but the tide is turning. The city of Ithaca, NY is contemplating a safe injection space, as is Seattle. Multiple studies have confirmed that they work. In Vancouver, Canada, where such facilities were implemented in 2003, they concluded: “Vancouver’s safer injecting facility has been associated with an array of community and public health benefits without evidence of adverse impacts.” Massachusetts is also contemplating a similar pilot supervised injection facility program. With the crises of the opioid epidemic now claiming more than 30,000 lives every year in the US, it’s time to change our biases and old ways of thinking — people’s lives depend on it.

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