The COVID-19 pandemic has brought major challenges to healthcare systems and public health policies globally. It requires novel treatment and prevention strategies to adapt to the impact of the pandemic.
With travel restrictions, people stayed indoors. With plenty idle time, a devil’s workshop manifested.
Individuals with substance user disorders (SUD) were at risk from psychosocial conditions.
The underserved communities have been disproportionately affected by the acute effects of substance misuse during the pandemic.
The disparity in the health outcomes among the various races has been attributed to the inequitable distribution of healthcare resources.
Moreover, social and economic changes caused by the pandemic, along with the traditional difficulties regarding treatment access and adherence—will certainly worsen during this period, therefore aggravating their condition. In addition, this population is potential vectors of transmission.
Addressing delegates at the 3rd Edition Harm Reduction Exchange 2023, Kenya, Dr Vivian Manyeki added that substance use increased in underserved communities, and there was a 23% rise in alcohol abuse and 16% in drug abuse among pre-pandemic users in underserved groups.
Dr Manyeki said that those with substance disorders at higher COVID risk People with pre-existing substance use disorders were more likely to get severely ill from COVID-19.
Dr Manyeki highlighted that more people used substances to cope, and over 10% of adults reported starting or increasing alcohol/drugs to deal with the pandemic.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the challenges faced by those who use drugs, impacting harm reduction services.
“While harm reduction services in Africa have expanded, major gaps remain in implementation and coverage. Stigma and policy barriers must be addressed to improve access to life-saving interventions, “Dr Manyeki explained.
In her presentation, Dr. Manyeki revealed that stigma around substance use has negative attitudes and discrimination against people
with substance use disorders creates barriers to treatment and recovery.
She added that lack of access to treatment where many people struggling with addiction are unable to access or afford evidence-based treatment programs.
Dr Manyeki said the overprescription of Opioids and widespread overprescription of opioid painkillers have contributed to the onset of the opioid epidemic.
Across the world, harm reduction strategies have been deployed in public health as a pragmatic and compassionate approach to address various issues, particularly in the context of substance use and other risky behaviors. Some of these strategies include Needle Exchange Programs, supervised injection sites, condom distribution, PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT), Vaping and E-Cigarettes, and supervised consumption of medications.
The third annual Harm Reduction Exchange was run under the theme: ‘Amplifying the voice of Harm Reduction advocacy across Africa’.
A recent UNICEF Zimbabwe Mental Health Poll for Adolescents and Youths showed that 76 per cent of those surveyed were of the view that the mental health of children and adolescents had been negatively affected by the outbreak of COVID-19 and the hard national lockdowns that followed.
A lot of young people could not cope with seeing their parents struggle to make ends meet during the prolonged school breaks, and this drove many into substance abuse and sexual activities, the survey says.
There was also a rise in cases of physical and sexual abuse in homes, which affected the mental well-being of young people.
Statistics compiled in 2021 by the Zimbabwe Civil Liberties and Drug Network revealed that 60 percent of psychiatric admissions were due to drug abuse. Eighty percent of these were people aged 16 to 25, including schoolgirls.
“As it stands, 60 percent of patients admitted to mental institutions suffer due to drug and substance abuse-related problems,” the document noted.
With youths from poor resources families not able to be admitted in private institutions, the asking price of US$400 or more a week is a deterrent.
Last year, 17 youths from Entumbane suburb in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, were rushed to Ingutsheni Central Hospital after overdosing on crystal methamphetamine (meth known as mutoriro locally), as the drug menace among young people escalates.
Ingutsheni Central Hospital Chief Executive Officer, Dr Nemache Mawere confirmed that 17 youths were recently admitted to the institution.
“I don’t know if we will ever win the battle against crystal meth because it’s just beyond us. We admitted 17 youths from Entumbane who had overdosed,” he said.
“We are using the majority of our resources to intervene, but it’s clear that we are losing because no matter how much we try to rehabilitate users, they always relapse.”
The rate at which youths are abusing drugs has grown considerably with residents attributing that to the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown. About 250 drug addicts are attended to at Ingutsheni Central Hospital monthly, with the number of youths abusing drugs continuing to rise in Bulawayo.
Mutoriro is a low-end drug used. It is attained from light bulbs.
Youths now use anything from used diapers, battery substances, and fermenting food can give the desired effect to get high.
It is this in mind that harm reduction is a necessary measure to be taken on board.
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