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Jason Burke, MD
Alcoholism is a disease that has plagued mankind for generations. There are medical, psychological, and social aspects to this problem. Many different solutions have been put forth, including medications, support groups such as AA, interventions, psychology, and inpatient therapy. One new therapy that has come out is a vaccine for drinking.
In this article, they describe a new vaccine that will target liver cells to increase acetaldehyde concentration when a person drinks. Acetaldehyde is the breakdown product of alcohol and it produces many of the effects of a hangover. With this vaccine, a person who drinks an alcoholic beverage will rapidly experience the effects of a hangover and these effects will last longer than normal. Basically, if the person gets the vaccine, they will have an instant headache, nausea, and vomiting within one or two drinks. In the rats who have received this experimental vaccine, alcohol consumption went down by half.
This could be an effective treatment, but based on my experience treating hangovers at Hangover Heaven, the alcohol vaccine would have to be combined with significant social support and/or psychotherapy. Without a combined approach, an alcoholic who receives this vaccine could be more likely to turn to another substance such as cocaine or prescription drugs as an alternate way to feed the addiction. In addition to the chemical problem, the root cause of the alcoholism needs to be addressed.
This is an experimental treatment and its long term effects will be unpredictable. The immune system is probably the most complex system in the body. As an anesthesiologist, I know medicine knows less about the immune system than probably any other system in the body. The liver performs many different functions and altering an important enzyme such as acetaldehyde dehydrogenase could have serious long term consequences.
Overall, the alcohol vaccine has the potential to possibly be a beneficial treatment for alcohol abuse, which is an ever increasing problem in this world. But, our society sometimes relies too much on magic pills and procedures. Social and psychological support are also necessary to combat problem drinking, including alcohol abuse among minors. As with legal age alcoholics, underage alcoholics would be much more likely to turn to other drugs of abuse to feed the addiction if given the vaccine.