By Dr. César Chelala
The revelation that the number of opium-addicted Afghan children has reached new highs is a sad, unintended consequence of the war in that country. It dramatically illustrates how adult war games can doom generations of children to a miserable life. It is one of the tragic legacies of a disastrous war.
The extent of health problems in children as a result of such exposure is not known. What is known is that the number of drug users in the country has increased from 920,000 in 2005 to over 1.5 million in recent years, according to Zalmai Afzali, the spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics (MCN) in Afghanistan. A quarter of those users are thought to be women and children. Afzali stated that Afghanistan could become the world’s top drug-using nation per capita if current trends continue.
A study by a group of researchers hired by the U.S. State Department found staggering levels of opium in Afghan children, some as young as 14 months old, who had been passively exposed by adult drug users in their homes. In 25% of homes where adult addicts lived, children tested showed signs of significant drug exposure, according to the researchers.
The results of the study should sound an alarm, since not only were opium products found in indoor air samples but also, their concentrations were extremely high. This suggests that, as with second-hand cigarette smoke, contaminated indoor air and surfaces pose a serious health risk to women and children.
The problem is compounded by the lack of education of many mothers, who give opium to their children when they are restless and want to calm them down, ignoring the dangers that such an approach may provoke later in their children’s lives.
“The next generation of Afghans risks being condemned to a life of addiction. And addiction will grow exponentially, as each family on average has half a dozen kids,” stated Antonio Costa, director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC).
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), no other country in the world produces as much heroin, opium, and hashish as Afghanistan, a sad distinction for a country already ravaged by war. This may explain why control efforts so far have been concentrated on poppy eradication and interdiction to stem exports, with less attention paid to the rising domestic addiction problem, particularly in children.
Both American and Afghan counter narcotic officials have said that such widespread domestic drug addiction is a relatively new problem. Among the factors leading to increased levels of drug use among adults is the high unemployment rate throughout the country, the social upheaval provoked by this war and those that preceded it, and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan who became addicts while abroad.
Those who are injecting drugs face the additional risk of an HIV infection through the sharing of contaminated syringes. “Drug addiction and HIV/AIDS are, together, Afghanistan’s silent tsunami,” said Tariq Suliman, director of the Nejat’s rehabilitation centre to the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs. There are about 40 treatment centres for addicts dispersed throughout the country but most are small, poorly staffed, and under-resourced.
An international team, including World Health Organization (WHO) officials and experts from Johns Hopkins University and the Medical University of Vienna, has joined efforts to design a treatment regime for young children.
According to UNDOC: “… Not only does drug production hold back Afghanistan’s development and threaten its security. Drug addiction is harming Afghanistan’s health and welfare. This is another reason to reduce the supply of drugs in Afghanistan. And it calls for much greater resources for drug prevention and treatment in Afghanistan, as part of mainstream health care and development programmes.”
The United States and its allies who have orchestrated this war have the responsibility and the economic possibilities to rapidly expand, adequately fund and provide the human resources needed by treatment and rehabilitation centres throughout the country. They can help redress a situation that has negatively affected children’s health and quality of life in that troubled country.
Dr. César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America Award.