Beyond drugs: Addiction and treatment in Egypt

Khaled El-Ghamry and Nesmahar Sayed, Saturday 26 Jun 2021

Amr Osman, director of the National Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction, speaks about fighting addiction

Beyond drugs

Amr Osman is director of the National Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction, and assistant to the minister of social solidarity. Osman has long been involved in drug prevention. He is a former director of the Drug Prevention Programme at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and consultant for the UNDP in Bahrain and worked on the Arab League’s Declaration for Combating Addiction. To mark International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on 26 June he spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly about the extent of drug misuse in Egypt and efforts to limit it.

What is the best way to manage drug addiction in Egypt?

Drug trafficking is the second largest illegal trade in the world after weapons. The reason is because it is a huge money-maker. In 2014, 10 per cent of the age group between 15 and 60 years old were estimated to use illegal drugs, and 3.3 per cent of this group could be classified as addicts. Global figures for drug abuse were five per cent for the same age group.

In 2020, as a result of anti-drug campaigns, drug abuse dropped to 5.9 per cent and addiction to 2.3 per cent. In March 2019, eight per cent of state employees were drug abusers but by 2020 this figure had dropped to two per cent. Campaigns targeting school bus drivers helped cut drug abuse among this group from 12 per cent in 2017 to 1.8 per cent in 2020. The average number of public employees tested for drugs daily is 2,000. Samples are taken without prior notice in coordination with the Forensic Medicine Authority and the General Authority for Psychological Health.

What is the main role of the National Fund for Drug Control and Treatment of Addiction in reducing the number of abusers and addicts?

Collecting data is central to drawing up national plans to combat addiction. Between 2015 and 2020 the focus was to raise awareness in government and technical schools, activating the role of the media. There was the very successful Mohamed Salah campaign “You Are Stronger Than Drugs”. Policies are also implemented in governorates that lack drug addiction treatment services.

The fund plays a role in prevention, early detection, treatment, rehabilitation, and social integration. Our work on prevention includes introducing lessons on drug abuse in primary and preparatory school curricula, and coordinating intensive awareness campaigns in schools, youth centres, cultural centres and universities, and social and mainstream media.

How successful are media campaigns?

The Mohamed Salah campaign had a very wide reach among young people, not just in Egypt but worldwide. The five campaigns we launched were translated into five languages. There were over 40 million views on social media, and the number of followers of the Fund’s social media increased from 5,000 to two million. The most recent campaign resulted in a four-fold increase in the volume of calls to the hotline 16023.

In 2014, the fund also began to monitor the treatment of recovery, addiction and smoking in Ramadan television dramas. We found the topics accounted for 13 per cent of dramatic content. In Ramadan 2021, the figure dropped to four per cent for smoking and one per cent for addiction. It is important to engage in dialogue with drama creators: that was the focus of an initiative presented at a World Health Organisation meeting in India and adopted in many countries.

Beyond drugs
Osman with Weekly reporters

What role does the fund play in treatment?

Treatment, rehabilitation, and social integration are key components of our work. An average of 40,000 drug addicts seek treatment annually, an indication of the confidence they have in the fund, and the fact the service is free of charge and confidential. Treatment centres have been opened, and their numbers are increasing. In 2014, there were 12 centres in seven governorates. Today there are 26 centres in 16 governorates and we hope to open three more centres by the end of 2021.

To mark International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, this week we launched a hotline at Sohag Psychiatric Hospital with our strategic partner the General Authority for Psychological Health. Last year we received 1,200 reports of addiction in Sohag. Now they can seek treatment close to home at no charge.

On 17 June we launched a programme under which 50 recovered addicts in Al-Azeema Addiction Centre in Minya will manufacture furniture for Al-Azeema Addiction Centre in Qena. The Qena centre is due to open in September. These recovered addicts are working hard to produce 120 beds, 120 cupboards, office furniture and doors for the new centre. In early 2022 we plan to open our largest drug treatment facility, with 200 beds and three out-patient clinics.

What other efforts is the fund involved in to reduce drug abuse?

As part of the initiative to develop and relocate slum areas, the fund undertook 18,000 visits to raise awareness in the new housing areas of Asmarat, Mahrousa, Rawdat Al-Sayed, Bashayer Al-Kheir and Sobhi Hussein. Minister of Social Solidarity Niveen Al-Qabbaj has also launched a campaign in Port Said governorate to implement comprehensive drug awareness programmes and drug prevention programmes in new housing areas, specifically addressing the young who are trained in life skills to avoid drug abuse.

Addicts are referred for treatment to the Al-Azeema facility in Port Said which was recently inaugurated by the president. We also opened three clinics in Port Said, the Red Sea and Marsa Matrouh which were visited by 1,200 drug addicts over the past five months.

New roles for the fund have also emerged, such as economic empowerment of recovered addicts through a LE5 million loan from Nasser Social Bank. Recovered addicts receive vocational training, and 3,000 have been fully reintegrated into society.

What role do volunteers play in your work?

There are 30,000 volunteers between ages 16-25 years old, up from 26,000 in 2019. An initiative with Cairo University enables us to train and grant a special diploma for demand reduction, which relies on life skills, preliminary prevention and reslience skills. Volunteers need to be locals to the area and natural leaders.

What is the cost of addiction for the country in terms of GDP?

It is an illegal trade, and therefore difficult to estimate a figure. The direct cost of treatment and prevention is very high, as are the emotional and financial costs on families.

What challenges are facing the fund?

We need to build the skills of cadres, build treatment centres for teenagers and women, and work to mobilise Egypt’s universities.

What makes addicts relapse?

There is stigma to drug use. All too often a recovered addict will find every door closed in his/her face, except the one back to drug use. Addiction is a chronic disease. We always advise recovered addicts to avoid houses where drugs are used, friends who use drugs and any paraphernalia that reminds them of their drug use. Family therapy is also helpful in reducing the risk of relapse.

One success story is the New Beginning initiative which offers economic empowerment to recovered addicts, offering skill building for small enterprises. Ninety per cent of its beneficiaries have remained drug free, underlining the point that regaining self-esteem is essential to kicking a drug habit.

Why are drugs so expensive?

Thanks to law enforcement efforts in Egypt. It is more difficult to trade in drugs, therefore the price is higher. Smuggling is also very difficult and high risk, which deters drug traffickers.

Where does the funding for your work come from?

The fund is financed from fines on drug dealers. These are diverted to treatment and the fund’s budget.

How does one avoid becoming an addict?

First, stop self-medicating and avoid unnecessary painkillers. Five per cent of drug abusers are women and we have special programmes for them.

There needs to be a correction of misconceptions, such as linking drug abuse to sexual and physical prowess or seeing them as a means to cope with stress. It is also necessary for people to avoid subversive cultures that encourage drug abuse, and for families to play a more active role in identifying drug use. Some 58 per cent of addicts come from families that missed the early signs of addiction. We also need to change media culture, which can glorify drugs. Any promotion of drugs, however light, is unacceptable.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 24 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


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