July 2020 - Page 14

TREATMENT THE HEAT IS ON Patrick Guenette/Alamy In the second part of ‘Doctor Wars’, Bill Nelles describes the tumultuous days of the 1980s By 1983, the cold war among doctors treating drug users was becoming a lot hotter, and there was still no public health response to drug use. The Home Office consultants still met regularly, and included private doctors as well as NHS consultants. The NHS doctors felt the private doctors prescribed overly generously, didn’t demand reductions, left their patients ‘still addicted’, and even charged them fees. The private doctors felt the NHS doctors were too rigid and their patients poorly treated. Guidelines on the treatment of drug misuse (‘orange guidelines’) were the first national guidance issued by this group in 1984 – they pleased few. For instance, the guidelines considered that medically supervised detoxification was a ‘simple and short-term process with spontaneous remission possible’, and also stated that maintenance was not acceptable. ‘Evidence-based treatments’ didn’t really exist in addiction medicine at that time. Ironically, the main use of the orange guidelines was as evidence in 1986 at Dr Anne Dally’s General Medical Council (GMC) hearing. She was a feisty senior private doctor on the working group and one of the signatories of the 1984 guidelines. I gave testimony supporting her at her GMC hearing, having become the drug education officer at the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) a year earlier, but her verdict was guilty of maintenance! While she was able to still be a doctor, she was never allowed to prescribe controlled drugs again. Her practice evaporated almost overnight. Because of its policy of avoiding methadone and arresting users for the possession of syringes alone, Scotland was one of the first parts of the UK to see the unusual and mostly lethal illnesses associated with AIDS and injecting drug use. Cheap heroin from Iran and the easy availability of Temgesic, (ironically, an early sublingual form of buprenorphine) had vastly increased the number of people injecting opioids, and police pressure had made clean needles impossible to obtain. But two factors had yet to By 1983, the cold war among doctors treating drug users was becoming a lot hotter, and there was still no public health response to drug use. reveal themselves. The first was, of course, the AIDS epidemic, with the first Scottish drug user dying in Scotland in 1983. The second was the growing involvement of general practitioners in providing services to drug users and their influence on practice. Britain had not made methadone a drug needing a Home Office licence, and thanks largely to the efforts of dear Dr Tom Waller – an ACMD member who batted it back every time it was put forward – it was never adopted as policy. These trends intersected in early 1985, when a young GP in Edinburgh published a paper in the BMJ which galvanised me, and many others, into serious action. Dr Roy Robertson, (now the Queen’s physician in Scotland and professor of addiction at Edinburgh University), had been seeing drug users for some years, and maintaining some with dihydrocodeine. He was able to obtain HIV test kits in advance of their national availability, and in late ’84 had taken blood for HIV antibody assay from around 160 patients. He knew they shared used needles, and the paper showed that 51 per cent had already been infected by HIV. The effect of this news cannot be exaggerated. Research testing in London was showing rates of under 5 per cent positive, so we realised we had a short window to make a difference if we moved fast. By the summer of 1986, teams in London, Liverpool, Edinburgh and Amsterdam and, of course, the US were working very hard to understand what they were facing, and the UK and Holland had already 14 • DRINK AND DRUGS NEWS • JULY/AUGUST 2020 WWW.DRINKANDDRUGSNEWS.COM