Addicts are always looking for the next quick fix. We want to feel better, quickly. We want the pain to go away, now. We don’t want to wait for things to gradually get better over time, to go through the hard stuff, to go two steps forward and one step back. In fact, it isn’t just addicts who feel this way. Most people want an easy solution to a complicated problem, be it money troubles, relationships issues, or a drug and alcohol addiction.
This week, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price discussed the possibility of a vaccine to cure opiate addiction. The vaccine would work similarly to other vaccines; in that it would “prevent” addiction from occurring. However, most experts explain to the public that they shouldn’t get their hopes up too quickly. “Experts caution against people getting their hopes up for a loved one currently in need, because the vaccines are years away from production.” In other words, the vaccine is in the testing stages and won’t be FDA approved for years.
Furthermore, there’s no guarantee that the vaccine would work in the first place. Addiction is not a disease similar to the HPV virus, for example. It is not simply a medical problem that can be prevented by a shot. It is a multi-faceted, psychological, spiritual, and emotional affliction. Even addicts don’t understand their own compulsions, let alone a bunch of scientists in lab coats.
Professor of Psychiatry, Dr. Thomas R. Kosten, explained further that, “I worked on a cocaine vaccine for 16 years before a study showed that it just didn’t work well enough for us to continue.” He is now currently trying to work on a fentanyl vaccine (opioid class) but that too has a ways to go. “There are no opiate vaccines that have ever been in people at this point,” Kosten explains.
The addiction vaccine would work by using one’s immune system to fight drug abuse. It would not involve modifying the brain in anyway. In creating this vaccine, the big challenge remains in using the immune system to “fight it in the bloodstream before it gets to the brain.”
There are some problems with this. Beyond the fact that it would take years for this to get approval, a vaccine would require patients to take the initiative to get treatment on their own. A vaccine would require that patients go in on a continuous basis to get treated, most likely. It would also not work with every opiate, at least at first. So if an addict is not fully committed to getting sober, than the addict could still potentially get high off of other drugs.
Other than these barriers, the vaccine fails to address the main concern, and that is that addiction needs much more of a solution than a simple vaccine or pill. If there were a pill to cure alcoholism, would it really cure alcoholism? Is there a medical cure for a spiritual malady, as the 12-steps of AA puts it? Who is going to force the addict to get the vaccines they need? How many excuses do addicts make on a daily basis in order to put off getting sober? It may work for some people who are truly ready for sobriety, but if anything those people don’t need the vaccine. It would cure their cravings, but those addicts are already on the path towards maintaining successful sobriety. All it takes is a willingness to get better, and once that willingness is there, the 12 steps are the solution.
Some doctors and scientists may disagree, but most addicts would probably admit, under pressure, that this position is right. The addict himself must want sobriety with all his heart, soul and mind. He can go in to a doctor right now to get a prescription for naltrexone (which cures opiate “highs”) and antabuse (which makes one sick if they drink alcohol.) But most don’t. Why? Because addiction is a disease of the brain, and mostly not of the body. The only addiction is the physical aspect, one that goes away within a couple weeks at the most. The addict must suffer through painful withdrawal symptoms, but the withdrawal symptoms are quite temporary. As many say, nicotine leaves the body in 3 days. So why do so many have trouble quitting smoking?
It will be interesting to see when and if this vaccine gets approval from the FDA and what the results are for the recovery community. If it helps addicts receive the help they need, then it will truly be a wonder drug similar to a vaccine for polio. But if it only helps those who are already willing to help themselves, then it may not be necessary in the first place.