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No food but opium for hungry childrenWritten by A. Malahat, staff reporter Morsal weekly
Saturday, 23 July 2011 12:20
Afghanistan has a serious problem of drug addiction among children. Many of them have been introduced to it by their mothers. Only a fraction can hope to be treated in de-addiction centres.
Children addicted to opium are the target of the Ashuqan Arifan field office of Nejat Centre, a 20-year-old de-addiction clinic in Kabul. Amanullah Raufi, the head of the centre, says they have even trained a few local women to visit homes in the neighbourhood to educate families about the perils of being hooked to opium and other substances.
Farishta, 37, and her three children are patients at the Ashuqan Arifan field clinic. She says she turned to opium to escape "poverty". "My husband did not work. I took opium, and gave my children opium, because of poverty." Two years ago he vanished, leaving her to fend for the family. "I gave my children opium so they would sleep and I could work in people's houses (as a domestic help)."
Opium addiction took a toll on the family's health. The children, like her, were pale and emaciated, and suffered from chronic stomach pains, head and chest aches. Farishta was at her wit's end when they moved to Ashuqan Arifan. Her luck turned when she was introduced to the Nejat Centre's field clinic by her neighbours, also opium addicts who were undergoing treatment at the clinic which had opened in 2008.
Her 12-year-old son and two daughters are already looking better.
The number of child addicts in the neighbourhood has fallen, says director Raufi. "Before several children were addicted to oil, sticky substance of shoes and sleep inducing medicine, but now their number has decreased." The centre works through partners like Sanga Amaj, a 20-bed health centre, the only drug de-addiction clinic run by the Ministry of Public Health in Kabul, which sends child addicts to Nejat after diagnosis.
Nejat works on the premise that addicted women and young children have to be treated in their homes; these could be infants who have not been weaned from their mothers. Children above 10 years are admitted for treatment that can stretch from one to three months.
Few treatment centres
Dr Sulaiman Tariq, who is in charge of the main office at the Nejat Centre, says Herat is the only province where the UN agency on drugs and the ministries of public health and counter narcotics have opened a centre.
According to Dr. Tariq, lack of awareness among parents about addiction is a major reason for children to get addicted. He cited the case of a father who made his school going children drop out to help him harvest opium poppy. By the end of the season, both his sons were addicted. The sad father confessed that had he known of the risks he would never have pushed his children to plucking poppy even if he was paid thousands of dollars.
A 2005 survey by the UN agency for Anti Narcotics and Crimes estimated child addict population was less than 250,000 in Afghanistan. By 2009, the UN was saying the number had reached 250,000.
Ibrahim Azhar, deputy, financial and planning directorate, Ministry of Counter Narcotics, says there are six 15-bed health centres for child addicts in Kabul, Badakhshan, Herat, Nangrahar, Mazar-e-Sharif and Farah Provinces apart from three 50-bed centres in Kabul, Juzjan and Herat provinces.
His concern is that the current capacity for the treatment of drug addicts is a mere one percent of the requirement. The number of addicts has only grown in the last few years, he says. "Ministry of Counter Narcotics is trying to build six 200-bed hospitals for de-addiction in seven zones of the country."
Opium instead of food
Eight-year-old Suman, seated in a corner of a room at the Nejat Centre, has a very scared expression on her timid and thin face. Six months ago her jobless father fell into bad company and started taking opium. He forced it on his wife and four children too. "In the beginning, my mother was giving me opium, but later when I felt pain in my body I myself asked her to give it to me."
Suman's three brothers, Aryen, Mansour and Sahil are also opium addicts. Says Suman's mother: "First, my husband used to take drugs and gave me opium; I gave opium to my children so they would not ask me for food."
Spokesman for the Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Ghulam Sakhi Kargar, says the biggest number of child addicts is in Afghanistan's north where women weave carpets, and sedate their children with opium so they can work freely.
He says "the easy access to drugs should be stopped." According to him, studies have shown that several people who were cured of addiction went back to it because drugs were easily available.
A 2006 survey estimates Afghanistan has a population of 920,000 drug addicts, of which 7 percent are children and 13 percent women.