do you get an 11-year-old off heroin?
BBC News Magazine
Jan 30 2006
A primary schoolgirl is undergoing
heroin withdrawal treatment after admitting to using the
drug for two months. But how do you treat a child drug
The 11-year-old girl was taken to
Glasgow's Royal Hospital for Sick Children after collapsing
in her primary school class last Wednesday.
It was thought the girl had fallen asleep
in class but hospital staff were stunned when the child said
she had been "chasing the dragon" for two months.
It's understood the girl is undergoing
"cold turkey" - that is medically unaided withdrawal -
because doctors are concerned she is too young to cope with
the drugs normally used to treat heroin problems.
So how do you help a schoolchild withdraw
Treatment for children differs markedly
from that for adults, many of whom have been using - and
injecting - heroin for years.
Adults may be prescribed methadone - a
powerful pain reliever used as a heroin substitute - to help
addicts progress to full withdrawal.
But putting an 11-year-old on methadone
would be the very last resort, according to Dr Clare Gerada,
Royal College of GPs spokeswoman on drugs and member of the
government's Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs.
"An 11-year-old is developing very rapidly
and the way the drug would be handled by that child's body
is very different to an adult," she says.
"Methadone is stored in the body's fat,
and a child's body is constantly changing and developing.
You might find that the right dose one week is not the right
dose the next. This is a serious drug which can cause an
overdose in its own right."
Dr Gerada also says methadone is known to
rot people's teeth and disrupt menstrual cycles, something
doctors would also want to avoid in a pre-pubescent girl.
This means going "cold turkey" - a phrase
than conjures up horrific images of a painful and
But Dr Gerada says depending on the level
of misuse of heroin, the child's experience of withdrawal
would most likely resemble "flu and last for three to four
days". She would recommend using conventional pain relief.
Child drug abuse and addiction is regarded
as much more complex and involves a wide range of
professionals. The child's background, emotional
development, family circumstances and mental health would be
"Drug abuse by children is rarely about
having a drug problem, it is most probably a symptom that
something - perhaps everything else - is going pear-shaped
in their lives," says Dr Gerada.
The Bolton Drug Action Team (Dat) was one
of the first substance misuse centres in the country to set
up a specialist service for under-19s. Sandy Saunders, its
Drugs Misuse Strategy Manager, agrees methadone would hardly
ever be recommended for a child.
For her team, the primary objective is to
establish how long and how often the child has been using
heroin and then to get them off drugs entirely as quickly as
"The most important thing is that all the
relevant support services are offered quickly - that
includes education, social services, and drugs counselling,"
says Ms Saunders.
She says it is vital the family is fully
involved from the beginning for the child to be successfully
"Young people using sometimes have parents
who are using too. We are seeing second and third generation
drug users coming forward for treatment," she says.
For both Dr Gerada and Ms Saunders the
important question to ask is why an 11-year-old would want
to smoke heroin in the first place?
"Dealers do not usually target children so
young because they would not risk increased police interest.
You've got to ask how and why a child of 11 is buying drugs
at one of our shopping centres."