Occasional IV Heroin Abuse Worsens HIV Symptoms


It’s common knowledge that injecting drugs like heroin poses a huge risk for transmission of the HIV virus. In fact, around 30 percent of all HIV infections worldwide (outside sub-Saharan and African areas) occur through this method. But a new study indicates that occasional IV heroin use after HIV transmission could actually worsen the symptoms of this illness much more than regular IV heroin use.

But how is this possible?

HIV and Occasional IV Drug Use

Researchers at Yale and Boston University teamed up with Russian collaborators for this ground-breaking project. You can find detailed information by reading the published research paper in the journal AIDS and Behavior.

Seventy-seven participants from Russia self-reported their use of heroin and other drugs at the beginning of the study, as well as at six and 12 months. According to lead author E. Jennifer Edelman, M.D., those who sporadically used heroin had lower counts of CD4 (which signals a weaker immune system) than those who either regularly abused the drug or didn’t use it all.

Symptoms that Accompany HIV

As the HIV virus multiplies and destroys more disease-fighting cells, symptoms develop and worsen. Those signs and symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen lymph nodes — often one of the first signs of HIV infection
  • Diarrhea
  • Weight loss
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath

“Our findings suggest that heroin withdrawal may be particularly harmful to the immune system, as measured by CD4 cell count,” said Edelman. Her team will now begin to look at “the effects of heroin and other opioids on other aspects of immune function” for future research projects and potential treatment methods.

Desperate for Solutions 

In 2003, the Canadian city of Vancouver opted to take a new – and extremely controversial – approach to its exploding rate of new HIV infections by launching Insite, a supervised injection site.

Insite provides IV drug users with clean needles and allows clients to bring in their own street drugs. While there, Insite clients are able to inject drugs in a clean and controlled setting that is staffed and supervised by round-the-clock nurses.

Here in the United States, the CDC is targeting IV drug users by developing programs that are derived from AIDS Community Demonstration Projects. One of the CDCs most recent anti-HIV initiatives is Community PROMISE.

The Community PROMISE initiative specifically targets IV drug users and their sex partners, high-risk youth and people living in areas with high rates of drug abuse and HIV infection. The goal of this community-level intervention is to promote consistent HIV prevention through community mobilization, distribution of informational materials and providing IV drug users with “risk reduction” supplies in the form of things like condoms and bleach.


Additional Reading: Mind Over Matter: The Psychological Grip of Addiction.