Combined with counselling it can work better than methadone, says scientist Hong Kong should consider using a newer drug to treat heroin addicts instead of relying on methadone which seldom helps people get on with their lives, according to a visiting scientist. Heroin is the most commonly abused drug in Hong Kong, making up almost three-quarters of registered cases, according to government statistics. Mahmud Mazland, a research scientist at Yale University and a consultant in addiction psychiatry, said a one-year study found that buphrenorphine, a synthetic opiate, lowered the risk of overdose. It also proved easier for addicts to give up compared with methadone. Dr Mahmud gave a lecture yesterday on recent advances in treating opiate dependence at a seminar involving the Hong Kong College of Psychiatrists and Schering-Plough, the manufacturer of the drug. Buphrenorphine works by blocking brain cell receptors, decreasing the craving for heroin, opium, painkillers and other opiates, Dr Mahmud said. A four-year study started in 2001 is being conducted to look at the efficacy of buphrenorphine - also known as Subutex in Asia. 'It is not a miracle drug. It is a very important tool that helps those who want to recover to do so in their own community without having the stigma of being labelled as a drug addict,' Dr Mahmud said. 'With long-term care and a community-based treatment, they are able to work and able to have a family.' Dr Mahmud said a buphrenorphine programme in Malaysia showed that after a year of treating 79 heroin addicts, 43 were clean of heroin. Of these, 35 were holding down jobs compared with 25 before the treatment started. Treatment with buphrenorphine costs about $2,000 a month, including psychotherapy, at private clinics in Hong Kong. By contrast, patients pay $1 a visit at the 20 methadone clinics subsidised by the government, costing the taxpayer $20 million a year. Psychiatrist Stephen Ng Wai-man, who also spoke at the seminar, said buphrenorphine was not commonly used in public hospitals because it is expensive and needs experienced doctors to provide counselling support. He explained that, 'a lot of patients who take methadone cannot work because of the sedating effect. After taking Subutex, patients can work'. Dr Mahmud said the true extent of heroin addiction might be two to three times more than the government figures suggest. 'Once treatment is easily accessible and efficacious, people will start to come. They are a hidden population. 'It is a terrible condition. A study has shown that within the space of 20 years, two-thirds of heroin addicts will be dead or missing [from treatment programmes] and presumed dead.'