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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Stigma can cause addiction-related health issues to go unnoticed in UAE, say experts

Experts at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi say the acceptance of addiction as a health concern has improved but taboos remain

Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, director of public health and research development at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the burden of addiction in the Middle East is the same as that in the US. Lee Hoagland / The National
Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, director of public health and research development at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi, said the burden of addiction in the Middle East is the same as that in the US. Lee Hoagland / The National

Health issues related to addiction remain a blind-spot in some communities due to continuing stigmas surrounding drugs and alcohol, experts have said.

Speaking at the Public Health Forum of the Arab Health Congress in Dubai, doctors working in the field of addiction said that while some patients struggle to access help, knowledge and acceptance of addiction as a genuine health concern has vastly improved in the last 15 years.

“For so many reasons this subject is taboo in the community,” said Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, director of public health and research development at the National Rehabilitation Centre in Abu Dhabi.

“Because of our culture and religious values, many think this problem of addiction does not exist.

“It exists in every single country and the burden here in our region is probably the same as in the US.

“If President Trump claims it is an epidemic and an emergency issue, it is the same in the Middle East.”

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry system.

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Dysfunction leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations that can result in disability and premature death.

According to the World Health Organisation, drug addiction is one of the leading causes of mortality and morbidity worldwide, and one of the leading causes of HIV and Hepatitis C infection.

It is also proven to be associated with crimes and national security, and has a catastrophic effect on health, social, safety and economic factors.

According to the NRC, 3.5 per cent of the world’s population are drug users, with about 50 million addicts and 30 million are suffering from drug-related illness.

Ten separate classes of drugs can lead to substance misuse disorders. Those are alcohol, caffeine, cannabis, hallucinogens, inhalants, opioids, sedatives, hypnotics, anxiolytics, stimulants and other unknown substances.

The number of psychoactive substances has risen from about 260 in 2010, to more than 600 now.

In 2002 the centre had just 14 beds, and treated just one patient in six months. In 2018, the NRC has 160 patients with between 70-80 fully occupied beds.

The NRC also recently began treating patients for gaming and internet addiction in adolescents and is studying factors influencing women addicts in the UAE.

“There remains a stigma of patients coming to the centre, but it has dissolved to a certain extent since it was established in 2002,” Dr Al Marzooqi said.

“We have had patients who have relapsed more than 15 or 16 times, there is nothing wrong with the treatment programmes we are offering, just the nature of the effect on the brain that makes relapse very common.”

The NRC is currently in talks with the Department of Health Abu Dhabi to expand its programme of addiction clinics within existing primary healthcare centres.

Education is also being offered to primary healthcare physicians to help male an earlier diagnoses and offer initial counselling that could help addicts.

Other addiction experts attending the seminar said some addicts refused to be transferred to the NRC due to fears they could lose their jobs of they were identified as having an addiction problem.

Dr Al Marzooqi also cited the rise in drug use in films and television as having an impact on addiction, similar to the use of tobacco that seems to normalise its use.

“This is increasing, and there needs to be a collaboration with multiple bodies to find a solution,” he said.

“The law has been modified recently to encourage addicts to seek help.

“For those who take drugs in the country for the first time, they are usually avoid punishment provided that they follow a compulsory treatment programme for at least three months.”