Government, donor and NGO officials inaugurated the country’s first methadone clinic during a ceremony at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh yesterday, ten weeks after the clinic dispensed its first dose of the heroin substitute.
Experts hope the voluntary program will serve as a model for the government’s approach to drug addicts. The government’s current drug treatment centers substitute what NGOs and aid agencies consider genuine treatment with military-type boot camps that more often than not see patients relapse upon release.
“The aim of this program is to reduce or prevent heroin use, reduce HIV/AIDS, and to improve the quality of life of heroin users,” said Chhit Sophal, the clinic’s director.
A well-established model in the West, the Health Ministry-run clinic aims to wean drug addicts off of heroin with daily doses of methadone, a substance that produces similar effects to heroin but to a far milder degree. By stifling the severe cravings of heroin addiction along with the emotional highs and lows, it helps users stabilize their lives. While methadone helps some patients kick their habits in a year or two, some remain on the medication for decades.
The latest UNAIDS figures estimate that there are anywhere from 1,500 to 10,500 heroin addicts in Cambodia, though experts say the real number could be far higher.
With a $350,000 budget courtesy of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the clinic aims to serve 100 patients over the course of a one-year pilot program. Nearly 11 weeks after opening, the clinic has already enrolled 60. Though five have stopped coming, that is still well below the 30 percent dropout rate for methadone programs globally, said Graham Shaw, a harm reduction and HIV/AIDS expert for the World Health Organization in Cambodia.
“So far it’s going well but we’ll see how it goes,” said Mr Shaw, who helped convince the government to open the clinic.
Whether the program ultimately succeeds, he added, will depend in large part on what social and economic support patients receive outside the clinic, the key to addressing the circumstances that led patients to start using heroin. Mr Shaw said efforts were still under way to connect patients with those services.