SAN DIEGO – The transition from noninjecting to injecting drug use can be a reversible process, results from a long-term study suggest.
“There’s a common stereotype in popular culture and in academic research that once people start injecting drugs, that will be their dominant route of administration for the rest of their lives,” lead study author, said in an interview at the annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. “We found that people who started injecting injected for several years, but then went back to noninjecting drug use. That so-called ‘reverse transition’ leads to a very big difference in infection with hepatitis C virus as well as reduced risk of overdose and reduced risk of other bacterial infections. Even though these people continued to use drugs, they were doing it in a way that was much safer.”
In an effort to examine the prevalence and characteristics of reverse transitions, Dr. Des Jarlais and his associates recruited injecting and noninjecting drug users aged 18 years and older from the Mount Sinai Beth Israel detoxification and methadone maintenance programs in New York City from 2000 to 2017. The researchers obtained informed consent and conducted a structured interview that included questions on why former injectors had ceased injecting drugs, along with testing for HIV and HCV.
People who were currently injecting were defined as those whose first injection was in 2000 or later and who had injected heroin or cocaine during the 6 months prior to treatment entry. People who formerly injected drugs were defined as those whose first injection was in 2000 or later but who had used heroin or cocaine without injecting drugs during the 6 months prior to treatment entry.
Dr. Des Jarlais, professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, reported results from 937 current and 104 former injection drug users. Compared with current injection drug users, former users were older (a mean age of 41 vs. 35, respectively), more likely to be African American (28% vs. 12%), more likely to have received previous methadone treatment (68% vs. 54%), and less likely to be HCV positive (30% vs. 47%; P less than 0.05 for all associations).
The researchers found that 11% of former injection drug users had reverse transitioned to noninjection drug use. Among former injection drug users, the most common reasons for ceasing to inject were “don’t like needles” (30%), “got tired of injecting” (29%), “afraid of overdose” (17%), “concerns about stigma” (16%), and other health concerns (14%).
Dr. Des Jarlais said. “Injecting is messy and it requires private space; it’s not a pleasant way of using drugs compared to just sniffing it. If we’re going to control hepatitis C, we need to find ways of encouraging people that if they’re going to continue to use drugs, they should try to stop injecting.”
The next step in this research area is to develop a more complete understanding of reverse transitions. “These are people doing it on their own, but we don’t have any programs to help them,” he said. “We have needle exchange programs for people to inject safely, but we don’t have any programs where people go from injecting to noninjecting.”
The study received funding support from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Dr. Des Jarlais reported having no financial disclosures.