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Abstract

Methadone maintenance therapy is advocated as a major preventive strategy for the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and other blood-borne infectious agents among injecting drug users (IDUs) because of its effects in decreasing the frequency of injecting and presumably sharing of equipment. As an opioid agonist, methadone may share the direct and indirect immunoregulatory effects of other opioids, and thus affect susceptibility to, and the natural history of, HIV infection. Available evidence pertaining to methadone and immune function is reviewed. The long-term immunosuppression observed in heroin injectors on present (incomplete) evidence appears to be caused by factors associated with a drug-using lifestyle rather than by a direct action of heroin. Although data are conflicting, it is most likely that methadone does not significantly impair immune function and is safe for HIV-infected IDUs, possibly even allowing some improvement of immune function to occur. The increasing reliance placed on methadone maintenance to control the epidemic of HIV infection in IDUs requires that remaining uncertainties regarding methadone and immune function are clarified urgently.