Behind East Africa’s love affair with illicit drugs

Posted on July 29, 2015 12:44 am

Indisputably,illicit drug-related deaths are obviously tragic affairs and nothing to make light of but even more tragic institution’s mandated to tackle the scourge have failed to get a grip on reality and address drug problem in a meaningful way.I had a chance late last night to meet a group of academics and public health experts who are doing a research on drug menace in East African region.Their wish would be to request the governments and enforcement authorities to commit to proven public health approaches to address drug use, and to urgently discontinue strategies that have been found to be counterproductive, such as involuntary rehabilitation and the prison penalty.The penalty for drug offenses in the region has proven ineffective as a deterrent, as the litany of drug busts chronicled in Uganda, Kenya and United Republic of Tanzania shows.Even the enforced rehabilitation hasn’t worked to help people kick their habit, while truly effective measures such as needle syringe programs, opioid substitution therapy and community-based voluntary drug treatment have been overlooked because they are not politically convenient especially in Tanga,Kampala, Dar Es Salaam, Mombasa and Nairobi where the problem of drug abuse is said to be chronic.

Contador Harrison has long argued against militarized approach to the drug problem, and while I certainly don’t condone the illegal drug trade,I submit that radically new approaches are needed to address the problem in Africa especially Eastern part of the country.For that to happen, authorities in the East African Community member states must stop buying the baseless claims shilled by their advisers and start listening to the experts on the grounds, perhaps including your blogger.Otherwise, at the rates that drug trafficking and consumption are growing, the researchers claim of 200 deaths a week in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania might soon not sound ridiculous.All across the entire greater East African coast areas the nightmare of addiction has fully awakened.In coastal cities like Kilifi,Malindi,Mombasa, Dar Es Salaam and Tanga they are now coming face to face with the haunting reality of addiction and addicts which is HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C that has seen increased cases reported.There is no escape, there is nowhere to run, there is nowhere to hide. The nightmare is real, and the crisis of the addiction nightmare is as horrifying as any of us imagination can perceive.The epidemic of addiction and addicts and the pandemic of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis stretches from Lindi in Tanzania to Kilifi in Kenya.

Promoting and emphasizing on drug supply reduction strategies has not stopped addiction or these diseases from spreading across our communities.The current estimation of people abusing drugs, and people who are addicted to drugs is now rapidly approaching 3 million along the East African coast.Each and every day now in Mombasa, parents bring their children, boys and girls, into recovery center. The fear, frustrations, tears and anger spill forth from the hearts, minds and lips of each of these parents.In one story that was posted online few months back by a Kenyan Television channel – Citizen Tv, the young addicts sit quietly, staring at the floor, or playing with their fingers, and hating to have been brought to this place. According to Citizen Tv’s investigative reporter Michael Njenga, these young addicts know their lives have been wrecked by something called the drug addiction and they can no longer control.Rehabilitation facilities in Mombasa have accepted addicts and junkies into the program for Detoxification, Treatment, Recovery and Aftercare. Of these young adults, the ages range between 16 and 45 male and female junkies, more than 35% according to researchers have tested Hepatitis C positive, a virus that with time causes cirrhosis and cancer of the liver.

More than 45% have tested positive for HIV/AIDS.The grave news is that there is no cure for either virus.These viruses are highly contagious, and both are deadly. The numbers and percentage of this nightmare grows daily.These viruses are mostly spread by sharing needles and having unprotected sex.Intravenous Drug Users(IDUs) which is used to describe people who are injecting drugs with needles are becoming more and more common in East African countries. More than 70 percent of the Mombasa addicts are now estimated to be IDUs. Drug abusers and addicts who use and share needles are the most susceptible to becoming infected with the HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis viruses. Drug users, abusers and addicts are now considered to be in the ultra high risk group.One of the researchers told me they have had to look these young people in the eye and tell them:”not only are you an addict, you also have Hepatitis C, or you have Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS.” At first what you see in their juvenile eyes is disbelief. All time stops and freezes, then fear comes, then the tragic horror and truth of the nightmare sets in as they begin to realize that what researchers have just told them is – you have an incurable virus, and it is going to kill you.

In another report covered by South Africa’s state broadcaster SABC, focusing on drug abuse in Mombasa,a rehab staff is quoted as saying they do tell these addicts that they need to stop using drugs, any drugs. Because continued use of drugs will aggravate their conditions.Recent studies in Kenya have found that cocaine, heroine and crystal methamphetamine speed up the replication process of these viruses. Alcoholics toxic to people, especially addicts, who have any type of liver disease. A female health officer told me they do look parents in the eye, exactly the same as they do with their children, and tell them the same thing that your son or daughter has Hepatitis C, or HIV/AIDS.In one case she handled, a parent immediately stared into empty space, lost his breath, and all energy drains from his body slumped down, limped from the words, and tears began to flow.The father asked me to repeat what I just said. He even asked me to explain what I said, and explain what Hepatitis and HIV/AIDS is, and what each virus does. The reality of these moments lasts a lifetime according to 46 years old female health office who was born and bred in Uganda’s capital Kampala suburb of Rubaga but trades her skills with an international NGO working on combating drug problem in East Africa. She admitted that such diagnosis are now becoming a daily occurrence at their centers.

Each time they have to tell someone they have Hepatitis or the HIV/AIDS virus is heartbreaking for everyone. It never gets easier, only more difficult.Most East Africans do not understand the severity of addiction and addicts, or HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis, as of yet. The number of addicts is rapidly increasing, so are the reported cases of HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis.Statistics are only barely beginning to begin to record the number of people that have been tested, and are found to be HIV positive, those that have died, and are dying from AIDS.Mind you the region is already grappling with high number of people living with HIV/AIDS with Kenya being the fourth most affected country globally according to World Health Health Organizations 2013 report.East African countries do not yet report the number of deaths caused by drug overdoses, even though many young people are dying monthly from overdoses.Much is being shared today about drugs, addiction and these viruses in Kenya and United Republic of Tanzania. Still, hardly anyone truly understands what to do with addicts.This is a large part of the reason addiction is such a nightmare in these countries coastal regions.

Parents and the general public think that detoxification, or a short-term stay in some hospital or institution, or counseling in some drop-in center will cure their child of addiction. Parents spend millions of shillings on detoxification, then spend millions more on medication.Parents do this over and over again, hoping in vain something, anything, will cure their children from this nightmare. Yet it does not work because addiction is not simply a physical condition. It is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual condition. And because basic detoxification does not stop or cure the addiction, the nightmare continues and becomes worse.Home based treatment programs, community-based self-help programs are the best ways to combat addiction today.HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis must be dealt with in the same way,because those involved at the core have the best, most current knowledge and information available for addicts, infected addicts and their families. Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda have run out of time for both hope and guess-work. This is the time for combined and community action. Anything else, other than action only helps the nightmare to spread in a region with more than 140 million people.

Contador Harrison