Dr. Jeff Harries

Prior to the pandemic, Dr. Jeff Harries, a retired Penticton family physicians, delivers one of his talks that have helped thousands of doctors understand pharmaceutical treatment options for alcohol use disorder.

From his failing hands, a retired Penticton doctor is passing off his life’s work, which he devoted to raising awareness about prescription medications that can help treat alcohol use disorder.

For the past three years, Dr. Jeff Harries has been travelling around B.C. and Alberta speaking to doctors, judges, counsellors and anyone else who will listen about the success his own patients have had with six safe – but little-known – drugs.

To date, he has done approximately 150 presentations for 4,000 people. He gave six virtual talks this week alone, including a session with lawyers, probation officers and child-protection workers from across the B.C. Interior.

Dr. Harries’ busy lecture schedule is all the more impressive in light of his ALS diagnosis. 

Also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS affects muscle control and gradually leaves patients paralyzed and unable to eat or breathe. Approximately 80% of patients die within two to five years of their diagnosis, according to the ALS Society of Canada.

“My ALS is advancing and I won’t be able to do much talking after a few more months, I would think,” Dr. Harries said in an interview Friday.

“I’ll be cheering from the sidelines.”

He’ll be cheering on the founders of the Canadian Alcohol Use Disorder Society, which was formed in September in Penticton.

The group’s mission is simple: continue spreading Dr. Harries’ message of hope right across Canada. The charity is starting at home, though, by taking its first steps in the South Okanagan.

“But the intent is to then expand provincially and determining which province is ready to start spreading the word, to start seeking out those physicians and other clinicians who are interested in moving forward and giving those presentations,” explained Izabela Szelest, the society’s executive director.

“We’re also looking for leaders outside the system to have those conversations and change those perceptions.”

Additionally, the society is building a research program and developing educational material.

“It’s important to note we are not trying to prove these medications work. We know that already,” added Szelest, who is employed separately as the Interior Health Authority’s manager of specialized community services programs.

“What we’re trying to do is let (health practitioners) know about them so they prescribe them more regularly.”

Dr. Harries first became interested in the drugs in 2003, when he read an article in medical journal The Lancet that explained how a medication called topiramate had been proven to help many people stop or reduce excessive drinking.

He began prescribing it to his own patients and was astounded by the results, which he describes as nothing short of miraculous.

Since then, Dr. Harries has prescribed topiramate and the five others – naltrexone, acamprosate, baclofen, gabapentin and ondansetron – to hundreds of patients, ranging from teenagers to street people to fellow doctors, all of whom needed help to stop drinking.

None of the drugs was created to treat alcoholics specifically – for example, ondansetron is an anti-nauseant commonly given to chemotherapy patients – but all of them work on brain chemistry, which is out of balance in alcoholics.

The drugs reduce patients’ cravings for alcohol, and work best in conjunction with counselling and other treatments.

More importantly, according to Dr. Harries, who won the 2020 Everyday Champion award from the BC Patient Safety and Quality Council, the drugs give patients hope and treat alcoholism like the disease that it is.

“AUD is a medical disorder; it’s not a moral failing or bad upbringing or any of the other things that have shamed people,” he said.

That more evolved view is shared by everyone involved in the new society, including the Community Foundation of the South Okanagan Similkameen, which is lending administrative support.

“Not having to look after the back-end stuff really frees them up to speak to the health-care sector,” explained CFSOS executive director Aaron McRann.

“Dealing with donors and marketing plans is a whole other part of a charitable business, and that’s something we can look after while they do the heavy lifting on the health-care side.”

McRann also noted his agency is one of 190 community foundations across the country that cover 90% of the population, and he hopes to use those connections to help the Canadian Alcohol Use Disorder Society spread its message.

For more information or to donate, visit www.cauds.org.

6 DRUGS TO TREAT ALCOHOL USE DISORDER

  • Acamprosate (common brand name Campral): This medication is used along with counselling and support to help people who are alcohol dependent not drink alcohol. Acamprosate works by restoring the natural balance of chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters).
  • Baclofen (Lioresal): Baclofen is used to treat muscle spasms caused by certain conditions (such as multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury/disease). It works by helping to relax the muscles.
  • Gabapentin (Nerontin): Gabapentin is used with other medications to prevent and control seizures. It is also used to relieve nerve pain following shingles (a painful rash due to herpes zoster infection) in adults. Gabapentin is known as an anticonvulsant or antiepileptic drug.
  • Naltrexone (Revia): Naltrexone belongs to a class of drugs known as opiate antagonists. It works in the brain to prevent opiate effects (e.g., feelings of well-being, pain relief). It also decreases the desire to take opiates. This medication is also used to treat alcohol abuse. It can help people drink less alcohol or stop drinking altogether. It also decreases the desire to drink alcohol when used with a treatment program that includes counseling, support, and lifestyle changes.
  • Ondansetron (Zofran): This medication is used alone or with other medications to prevent nausea and vomiting caused by cancer drug treatment (chemotherapy) and radiation therapy. It is also used to prevent and treat nausea and vomiting after surgery. It works by blocking one of the body's natural substances (serotonin) that causes vomiting.
  • Topiramate (Topamax): Topiramate is used alone or with other medications to prevent and control seizures (epilepsy). This medication is also used to prevent migraine headaches and decrease how often you get them.

Source: HealthLink BC