22 March 2017

Muscle relaxant touted as 'miracle cure for alcoholism'

Baclofen, a drug that is normally used as a muscle relaxant, may help to reduce alcohol consumption, researchers say.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that alcohol use disorders constitute a significant disease burden in most regions of the world – and South Africa is ranked as one of the top 20 biggest drinking nations in the world, according to a WHO study across 194 countries.

Good news

Good news is therefore that French researchers have provided fresh evidence to support claims that a drug touted as a miracle cure for alcoholism, actually works.

The drug, baclofen, had "a positive effect" at high doses in reducing alcohol consumption over a year of treatment, according to study results released at a conference in Paris.

Data show that in 2015, pure alcohol consumption (per litre) in South Africa is at 11.5 litres per capita per year – up from 11.0 litres in 2014.

This pushes South Africa up to the third biggest drinking nation in Africa, and the 19th biggest drinking nation in the world, tied with Poland.

What is baclofen?

Baclofen is a muscle relaxant with a selective action on the central nervous system (CNS). It was originally designed to treat epilepsy, but its effect was disappointing. Today it is used mainly to treat muscular spasms, cramps and rigidity that originate in the spinal cord.

Developers reported on a drug trial named Bacloville, conducted among 320 heavy drinkers aged 18 to 65 between May 2012 and June 2013.

The trial compared the safety and efficacy of the drug given to some participants at high doses, to a "dummy" placebo pill given to others.

Neither the trial participants nor their monitors knew who was getting which pill. The patients were not asked to refrain from alcohol.

Contradictory findings

57% of those who got the real drug stopped drinking or drank less, compared to 37% of those who got the dummy drug.

A second study, dubbed Alpadir, also reported Friday that people who received the medicine made bigger cuts in drinking compared to those given a placebo.

French health authorities gave provisional approval for use of baclofen, originally designed and widely used to treat muscle spasms, in 2014 for the treatment of alcoholism.

A Health24 article confirms that baclofen is available in South Africa and sometimes used in the treatment of addiction, amongst others cocaine addiction. Addicts say that once they were treated with baclofen their desire for cocaine plummeted significantly.

Many people in other countries are thought to use the drug without a prescription to fight alcoholism.

Interest was sparked in 2008 by a book, "Le Dernier Verre" (The Last Drink), by French-American cardiologist Olivier Ameisen, who claimed to have self-treated his alcoholism with high doses of baclofen.

A subsequent French trial found high doses of the drug caused a significant percentage of heavy drinkers to give up or moderate their intake.

Several trials since then have come up with contradictory findings.

High doses may be irresponsible

Last year, Dutch researchers in a different study found the drug may work no better than counselling.

Without proof of its efficacy, prescribing high doses of the drug known as baclofen may be irresponsible, they warned at the time.

Ethypharm, the laboratory developing the drug, said it would submit an application by month-end for the commercialisation of baclofen for the treatment of alcoholism in France.

According to the UN's World Health Organization (WHO), 3.3 million deaths around the globe every year are the result of harmful alcohol use – almost 6% of all deaths.

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