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WHO probes patient death at drug clinic

A WORLD Health Organisation official said yesterday that a heroin user participating in the government’s new methadone programme had died, though he could not say whether the death was related to the programme.

Graham Shaw, a WHO technical adviser on drug use who designed the pilot programme for methadone therapy, could not provide many details about the death, and noted that an investigation was ongoing.

“We do know [the person] had respiratory problems, but without an autopsy we won’t know the actual cause of death,” he said. “We’re still trying to get the information before we can say to what extent it was related to methadone.”

He added: “It’s very sad. This is the first person on the programme that has died.”

Chhit Sophal, the head of the methadone clinic, located at the Cambodian-Russian Friendship Hospital in Phnom Penh, said yesterday that he hadn’t heard about the death.

“I don’t think so here,” he said when asked about it.

He speculated that the deceased might have died from using “other drugs, but not methadone”.

“They need to use the methadone at the clinic, where they are observed before they go home,” he said.

The programme, referred to as Methadone Maintenance Therapy, replaces heroin with controlled doses of methadone, a synthetic opioid that has similar effects. Proponents say MMT allows drug users to stabilise their lives and decreases the risk of HIV transmission through the use of shared needles.

The clinic, which Shaw said has about 60 patients, officially opens on Wednesday, though a trial version has been operating since July 1.

“The clinic is doing well so far, but it’s just one of those incidents,” he said. “One of the issues is that it is not possible to follow them day and night, to police them.

“The first two months on the methadone programme are a risky time,” Shaw said. “We’ll visit the clinic [today] and be reviewing what has happened, to find what can be learned from this.”



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