x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Lid to be lifted on substance abuse

First survey to determine the extent of the country's addiction problem will begin this week in co-operation with the United Nations.

Dr Ahmed Yousif, the National Rehabilitation Centre's medical director, says addiction is a 'matter of national security' and that studies must be done to determine the full extent of the problem. Galen Clarke / The National
Dr Ahmed Yousif, the National Rehabilitation Centre's medical director, says addiction is a 'matter of national security' and that studies must be done to determine the full extent of the problem. Galen Clarke / The National
ABU DHABI //The first survey to uncover the extent of drug and alcohol abuse in the country will begin this week. The National Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are scheduled to sign an agreement on Tuesday to start compiling information on the prevalence of abuse, the kinds of drugs being used, the age range of those using, and where they live.

The results will be used to provide focus to the NRC's awareness campaigns as well as guide its drugs prevention policies. The country currently lacks any national statistics for alcohol and drug abuse, with police and hospitals keeping their own separate records. News of the agreement coincides with yesterday's International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, and follows Friday's government announcement that efforts to keep illegal drugs out of the country have been stepped up with increased vigilance at border crossings.

Dubai Customs said it had foiled 251 drug smuggling attempts over the last five months, a 33 per cent increase compared with the same period last year. Dr Ahmed Yousif, the NRC's medical director, said addiction is a "matter of national security" . "There are not enough inpatient beds for the number of people who are presenting themselves with addictions," he said. "This is a chronic, recurrent brain disease. National surveys must be done to know about any areas of mental health.

"It is still highly stigmatised and, as such, you struggle to get any clear picture. You can't just rely on your statistics - there are so many agencies involved, police, hospitals. Our number of inpatients doesn't give you a clue about how the problem is out there." The NRC was first established for Emiratis in 2002 and since then, has had nearly 400 male inpatients, aged between 18 and 65, although the majority are between 20 and 50.

Next year, the facility will take its first cohort of females and by 2014, they will have a new facility beside Mafraq Hospital with 200 beds for both males and females. On average, eight new patients present themselves each week as outpatients. "Addiction does not spare any social class," said Dr Yousif. "The poor, the unemployed, the educated." However, he said the majority of patients are unemployed. "A great number have lost jobs because of their illness and it makes getting back into the job market more difficult because of the stigma and other factors."

The dean of the faculty of medicine and health science at UAE University, Prof Mohammed Baniyas, says that it is time the issue was tackled head on. "The whole area of substance abuse has been neglected, it's been a taboo in the society," he said. "I'm glad that the two institutions [NRC and UAE University] are committed to the rights of the patients and the population. The issues of prevention and educating dedicated healthcare professionals are vital, as well as committing to the continued treatment of patients to ensure they do not relapse."

Since 2002, Dr Yousif said that trends and shifts have begun, with more and more patients moving away from substances such as heroin, cannabis or alcohol, towards prescription drugs such as painkillers or tranquillisers such as Valium. This trend, he says, is apparent across the globe. "With analgesics, it's difficult to prove in court that you didn't need them if you have a prescription and the penalties are much less, although much of it is still available on the black market."

Dr Yousif says the whole concept of rehabilitation and treatment is new here and that standalone rehabilitation centres will never work. It is only with the development of a structured social services framework, such as help getting housing and employment, that addicts will be able to recover and reintegrate into society. Dr Hisham al Arabi, the head of research at the NRC, said there are many socioeconomic factors behind the research.

"Many issues come up as a result of drug abuse such as family disruption, child neglect, violence to family members. We have to identify the burden it puts on society and this involves extensive research." Dr Yousif says it is also difficult to rehabilitate in a society in which addicts are in turn criminals. "Society and families expect that rehabilitation centres are like washing machines. You put something in and expect it to come out clean. The reality is that recovery takes a very long time, often many years." Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous have existed for over 30 years in the Emirates. "Support groups depend on the society and culture," said Dr Yousif. "They work fine for a western society but we are not there yet. It takes time."