x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

A renewed effort to treat alcoholism

Alcoholism is a disease, not a disgrace. Social taboos should not stand in the way of careful efforts at prevention and treatment.

The damage done by alcoholism and alcoholics is truly incalculable, because much of it is emotional harm, impossible to quantify. Careers are destroyed, marriages strained or ruined, families abused or left destitute or split up, friendships blighted … the toll is enormous.

Muslim countries are not exempt. In a globalising world, no place is. The market-research firm Euromonitor International found that annual alcohol consumption in the UAE increased by 21 per cent between 2005 and 2010.

In light of that, it is hardly surprising that, as The National reported yesterday, officials in the UAE are seeing a sharp increase in the number of people in their 20s and 30s who are seeking treatment for alcohol problems. In 2010 the UAE National Rehabilitation Centre said 5.3 per cent of all deaths in the country could be attributed to alcohol and illegal drugs, adding that there must be a "considerable proportion of hidden users".

Anecdotal evidence abounds but precise figures are hard to come by: the social stigma attached to any alcohol use by Muslims makes the issue highly sensitive.

Still, alcoholism is now widely understood to be a disease, and diseases pay little attention to borders or to cultural norms. Alcoholism exists even in the societies that forbid the consumption of alcohol.

Increasingly, public-health officials are coming to understand that prevention and treatment are more useful than punishment in controlling alcoholism and rescuing its victims.

Those who abuse alcohol may well break the laws, but punishment by itself can be seen to tackles the symptoms - not the underlying cause. Already, authorities are taking steps to emphasise prevention and treatment: in Abu Dhabi children age 10-12 are receiving regular school lessons on the dangers of addiction. The NRC has been studying plans to extend alcoholism treatment to expatriates. Private-sector and NGO organisations exist to meet the need for help.

Like any disease, alcoholism is best attacked and controlled by a concerted effort: family, schools, law enforcement and specialised medical professionals must work together. Hiding at home and refusing to talk about a damaging sickness is not the way to heal yourself, or a loved one. The real shame is in avoiding treatment.