Australia’s leading medical journal will run a tough editorial this Monday, calling for an inquiry into the dangers of an unproven treatment for heroin addicts.

Crikey understands that a group of leading figures in the health world want the Federal Government to hold an independent review of the safety of Naltrexone implants, controversial devices which have been implanted into thousands of heroin addicts to help them try and quit.

The editorial in the April 21 issue of the Medical Journal of Australia is understood to raise serious questions about the safety of the still-experimental implants.

Last year Crikey ran a series of stories on the implants, which have not yet been properly assessed in good quality clinical trials. The implants are being used under an exemption in the Australian law, called the Special Access Scheme, which allows the use of unproven drugs in special circumstances.

Unlike other standard treatments like methadone, Naltrexone acts strongly against the effects of heroin, but one of the side effects is that people may be more likely to overdose if they go back to using heroin again. The implants have already been linked to a number of deaths, and a second article in next week’s Medical Journal of Australia discusses a series of new cases involving serious harm associated with use of the implants.

The chief promoter of the implants is the Perth-based Dr George O’Neil, who told Crikey he has implanted more than 2000 of these devices. O’Neil, who thanks God on his website and prays regularly, received strong political support from the Howard government, including taxpayer-funded grants to help assess and develop the implants. The grants were in excess of $150,000, and rumoured to be as much as $1 million.

In particular, former Health Minister Tony Abbott was seen as a big supporter of this controversial drug therapy. Last year O’Neil said of Abbott: “He’s been sympathetic and he’s onside.” Another strong supporter of the unproven treatment, Brisbane Dr Stuart Reece, said senior people in the Howard government had supported those advocating the treatment “at an ideological level.”

It will be fascinating to see whether the Medical Journal of Australia’s editorial has any impact on the new crowd, or whether Canberra simply continues to support the use of an experimental, unproven and potentially harmful drug therapy.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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