Using drugs in the fight against drug addiction seems a bit counterintuitive, and in the past they have proven unsuccessful. In the 1800s, morphine was developed as a substitute for opium in an attempt to reduce addiction rates. By the end of the Civil War doctors began to realize it was more addictive than the opium. Methadone was approved and widely used for heroin replacement therapy beginning in the 1960s. A longer-lasting drug, methadone became a substitute for many heroin addicts, who simply replaced one addiction the other.
Drug addiction vaccines are a different approach to medical intervention for addiction, though, and they show some promise for slowing the relapse rate. Relapse among individuals recovering from addiction is one of the biggest threats to long-term success. Between 40 percent and 60 percent of people in addiction recovery programs face relapse at least once. Most have to attempt rehab multiple times before achieving long-term success.
Rather than substituting another, perhaps less harmful, drug for the substance of choice, the drug addiction vaccine would stimulate the body’s natural immune system to react to the threat of drugs in the bloodstream. By keeping drugs from affecting the brain, the vaccine might be helpful in reducing the recovery relapse rate.
Vaccines for Drug Addiction Show Promise
Vaccines and addiction are not generally mentioned in the same sentence. Vaccines are well-known defenses against bacteria and viruses, especially the really bad ones that cause infections that are hard to cure. Outbreaks of serious diseases such as polio and mumps are rare because of vaccines and the public health policies that require them.
Rates of addiction and drug-related deaths are rising, posing significant threats to public health. Drug addiction, however, is not a virus or a bacteria. Although doctors are not exactly sure how addiction works, it is classified as a mental illness and considered a chronic disease. Addiction has a strong genetic component, and does not appear to be contagious in the traditional sense, although it can be learned behavior.
Finding a way to curb the rise in drug addiction would go a long way toward protecting public health. With more drugs in development each year, there are more opportunities for drug abuse, and addiction is an inevitable part of that trend.
We usually think of our immune system as protecting us against disease, those caused primarily by viruses or bacteria, but it may be possible to mobilize the immune system to fight off a different type of intruder, cocaine. It would require getting the immune system to recognize the drug and then find a way to isolate and eliminate it from the body.
If the immune system were to attack cocaine in the bloodstream before it got to the brain, it wouldn’t cause any damage. It also wouldn’t create a high, which means people wouldn’t want to take it. The appeal of drugs such as cocaine is the high people get from them. Without that, there is no point in going through the trouble of obtaining the drugs and the health risks of taking them.
Drug Addiction is a Threat to Public Health
If you doubt whether drug addiction is an issue of public health, consider the statistics. Addiction to alcohol, cigarettes and illicit drugs combined costs our country approximately $700 billion per year. Those costs include medical treatment, lost work productivity and crime. The addiction doesn’t have to be yours or even in your family for you to be affected. We all pay for addiction.
Drug addiction is not just a financial problem but a mortality issue as well. The top three medical problems in our society can be linked to addiction. Nicotine addiction contributes to up to 30 percent of cancer deaths as well as 30% of deaths from heart disease. Cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines and steroids are also linked to cardiovascular disease. Injected drug use, specifically, accounts for approximately one third of all HIV/AIDS cases, according to that National Institute on Drug Abuse report. Addiction is a leading cause of death when you factor in all of the related diseases it contributes to.
Vaccines have been successful in dealing with serious diseases in the past, so it makes sense that drug addiction might be treated by a vaccine. Of course, a vaccine is not a cure. It is simply a way to keep the disease from taking hold in a large number of people. A disease such as polio still exists, but far fewer people die from it because almost no one gets it anymore.
A vaccine that could lower the addiction rate would save money in the long run. A reduction in drug addiction would mean a reduction in crime. It would also reduce absenteeism at work and encourage increased productivity. There could be several positive outcomes, even for those not directly affected by addiction.
How Would a Vaccine for Drug Addiction Work?
Drugs impact the pleasure centers in your brain and make you feel good. This is where the addiction happens. By tweaking the chemicals in the brain, the drugs make people want more. There is something about the pleasant feelings people get when they take the drugs that make it hard to live without them. Plus, there is the increase in risk-taking behaviors stimulated by the drugs that make people take even more drugs.
A drug addiction vaccine would have to do something to protect your brain from this chemical invasion. The immune system is the body’s primary line of defense that attacks dangerous invaders. By keeping your immune system healthy, your body can fight off illnesses before they have a chance to really develop. This defense mechanism is operating in your body all the time, and you don’t even realize it.
A traditional vaccine boosts the natural reaction of your immune system by injecting dead or otherwise harmless versions of the germs we want to protect against:
- Your immune system sees the vaccine as an invasion and produces extra anti-bodies to fight the disease.
- With these extra antibodies in your system, you are better equipped to defend against a real invasion, should it happen.
Your immune system doesn’t recognize drugs, however, as dangerous invaders. Under normal circumstances, drugs pass very easily through the blood-brain barrier into your brain. The drug addiction vaccine would contain substances that trick your body into over-producing antibodies that could detect drugs.
When the right antibodies detect drugs in your bloodstream, they bond with them, making the drug molecules too large to fit through the blood-brain barrier. Instead of passing into your brain, the drugs bonded to antibodies remain in the bloodstream, where they can be filtered out without ever reaching your brain.
In addition to attracting the attention of your immune system and triggering production of the right antibodies, the drug addiction vaccine would rely on specific timing and dosage to get the job done. The vaccine would have to be administered at the right time, so the antibodies would flood the bloodstream while the drugs are there. The vaccine would need enough time to boost the immune system, so the antibodies would be in the right place at the right time.
The volume of antibodies would also have to match the amount of drugs in the bloodstream. With too few antibodies, the vaccine would work but it wouldn’t be able to capture all of the drug molecules, leading to two things:
- If a certain number of the drug molecules got through to the brain, the person would feel the effects of the drugs.
- Then they would realize with this vaccine they would have to overload their system with drugs to get the same high.
Obviously, this method has serious overdose potential and would defeat the purpose of taking the vaccine in the first place. Thus, it would be important for this type of vaccine to be monitored by medical and addiction professionals.
How Is a Drug Addiction Vaccine Useful?
The chicken pox vaccine prevents people from getting chicken pox, but a drug addiction vaccine doesn’t work quite the same way. The vaccine would not be useful against initial drug use and addiction. There are many practical reasons why everyone could not be put on a new vaccine for drug addiction at age 12 to prevent addiction before it even started.
The drug addiction vaccine would be useful in clinical settings for addiction rehabilitation. Despite all of the tools available to individuals recovering from addiction, relapse rates are still high. Many, even smokers, attempt to overcome their addiction several times before they reach their long-term goals. Some relapse and overdose before they get another chance to try.
Having a form of medical intervention that could block drugs from reaching the brain could bring down the relapse rate and improve long-term recovery success rates. Many times people in recovery fight their cravings until they can’t fight anymore. They think if they just use drugs one more time, to take the edge off, they can get right back on their recovery program. It doesn’t often work that way.
A drug addiction vaccine would help people at this critical point in their recovery. The vaccine would prevent the drugs from entering the brain to produce the desired high, relieve cravings, or further the addiction. With the vaccine blocking the effect of the drugs, there would be no reward for the user, and, therefore, they would not want to continue.
A drug addiction vaccine is not a magic bean, however. An individual struggling with addiction would still have to do all the hard work that recovering from addiction requires. If they were experiencing cravings and took the vaccine to block the effects of the drug, they would still have cravings and need to develop another strategy to deal with them. They just wouldn’t have the added problem of having to go through detox again.
Tools for Treating Drug Addiction
Addiction is a serious problem and a complicated concept to unravel. Everyone’s situation is different, tempered by their individual genetic make-up and overall health complexion. The elements of addiction, physical and mental, exist in varying degrees, requiring a unique combination of treatments with constant re-evaluation and adjustment.
There are a variety of treatment modalities available in a number of different settings. A drug addiction vaccine would be just one tool to help strengthen a comprehensive approach to long-term addiction recovery success. The following are some of the other tools that are used in drug addiction rehab programs:
- Education: Knowing how drugs affect the body and brain is an important component of rehabilitation. Addiction usually comes with a lot of blaming. It is important to understand how much of the situation is within the control of the person struggling with addiction and how much of it is nature taking over. Plus, there is an element of “scared straight” to learning some of the extreme issues that might have developed had the habit continued.
- Counseling: There is a lot of value in simply talking it through with someone who is trained to identify and explain common behavior patterns, addiction triggers and a whole list of possible underlying mental illnesses. With this type of professional one-on-one attention, it’s possible to discover the root causes of addiction and begin to work on those issues.
- Group Therapy: Addiction can be very isolating, taking people away from their family and friends, making them feel like no one understands what they are going through. Group therapy exposes individuals struggling with addiction to others who are going through the same situation, and it can be reassuring to know they are not alone. Humans are social creatures, and we thrive with true connections. Group therapy is often the beginning of building a new network of associates who support the recovery lifestyle.
- Stress Management: Stress is a primary cause of relapse in addiction recovery, so it is important to learn strategies for dealing with stress. Exercising, relaxing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle can keep stress from building up, but these are all things someone recovering from addiction needs to learn or re-learn.
- Exercise: Since everyone belongs to a gym these days it seems obvious that exercise would be part of a healthy lifestyle. But people struggling with addiction develop terrible lifestyle habits when they are on drugs, so a complete re-training is often necessary in rehab. Exercise is an excellent tool for re-learning self-care, an important part of addiction recovery. Moving the body every day, no matter what the person’s age, is a healthy habit and a regular reminder to take care of one’s self.
When used properly and at the right time, a drug addiction vaccine could be helpful in achieving long-term addiction recovery. But like these other tools for recovery, a vaccine alone is not the answer. The multifaceted problem of addiction cannot be cured in one step or one day. It takes a combination of approaches and hard work over a period of time to really achieve success.
A Vaccine for Drug Addiction on the Market
A pill was developed and marketed in the 1970s as an antidote to alcohol addiction. Naltrexone is not really a vaccine as described above, but it is not a replacement therapy, either. It is also taken to support recovery from opioid addiction, and some say it is more effective for narcotics than alcohol.
Naltrexone, also available under the brand name Revia, blocks the effects of alcohol or opioids in your brain. It binds to your receptor cells so the drugs can’t. Without engaging your brain, drugs and alcohol don’t have any effect. There is no high, which means there is no incentive to take more drugs.
Although it is not believed to be addictive, there are some dangers associated with taking Naltrexone. It cannot be taken with alcohol or street drugs. The effects of the drugs will be blocked, but it is possible to overdose while on Naltrexone and end up in a coma or worse.
Liver damage is another serious issue related to Naltrexone. It is available by prescription only and should only be taken in the exact doses a doctor recommends. Liver function should be tested frequently, and any signs of liver failure should be reported to a doctor immediately. These include:
- Excessive tiredness
- Unusual bleeding or bruising
- Loss of appetite
- Light-colored bowel movements
- Dark urine
- Yellow skin
Aside from the physical dangers, Naltrexone comes with a strict warning that it is only to be used as part of a comprehensive addiction treatment program. It is a lot easier to swallow a pill than go to therapy twice a week. Some people think because they have the medication, they don’t have to work as hard on their recovery. This attitude will not result in a successful long-term recovery.
Naltrexone also has a long list of side effects, including:
- Loss of appetite
- Difficulty falling asleep
People who experience severe side effects such as confusion, hallucinations or blurred vision should consult a doctor immediately. Naltrexone should only be taken under strict medical supervision.
Naltrexone can also cause withdrawal symptoms, which for some people are rather painful. It should never be used while someone is withdrawing from any substance. The newer version of Naltrexone, Vivitrol, comes in a liquid form and can be injected by a doctor. Vivitrol seems to last longer than Naltrexone, so it does not have to be administered every day.
Just because a drug is available on the market doesn’t mean it is the right thing in every situation. If you or a loved one are working on addiction recovery and have serious concerns about relapse, talk to a therapist about the proper treatment. The best chance of a successful recovery is to use all the tools that are available during rehab.
Is There a Vaccine for Drug Addiction?
If you’re looking for an easy cure for addiction, you will not find one. A vaccine or a replacement therapy is not a magic wand. Addictions don’t form overnight as a result of one clearly understood cause, so the chances of removing the addiction quickly and in one step are not good.
It is possible, however, to treat addiction. It happens every day, and there are thousands of people working in a field devoted to understanding and ending addictions. The best chance at recovering from addiction is to consult some of those professionals and get their help.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, contact 12 Keys Rehab for help today. Let our individualized recovery programs help you overcome your addiction. Recovery is never easy, but at 12 Keys we make it as comfortable as possible, using all of the available treatment modalities to support your successful recovery.
By contacting 12 Keys, you or your loved one will be one step closer to making a positive change. We can answer all of your questions about addiction treatment. We’ll explain what you or your loved one can expect moving through recovery on the way to a happy, substance-free life.