Kylie Kiunguyu Correspondent
Reports say Nigerian youths now use codeine cough syrup, just like cocaine, heroin or any other hard drug, to get “high”.

The opioid epidemic that was declared a public health emergency in America is now ravaging the youth of Africa. Unlike expensive opioid prescription drugs, codeine, found in certain cough syrups, is cheap and easily purchased over the counter

What are opioids?

Opioids are a group of drugs that range from codeine and morphine to illegal drugs like heroin. Most opioids are prescribed primarily for pain relief. They work by attaching to opioid receptors in your brain cells and releasing signals that block your perception of pain and boost feelings of pleasure.

Like other opioids, codeine is an effective painkiller that gives you a euphoric high if consumed in large quantities. It is highly addictive and when taken in excess, can have a devastating impact on the mind and body.

In addition to kidney damage and seizures, the abuse of codeine can trigger mental psychosis such as delusions, hallucinations and even schizophrenia.

Codeine syrup addiction

Thousands of young people on the African continent are addicted to codeine cough syrup – the medicine that has morphed into a street drug. It is often mixed with soft drinks to make a concoction referred to in popular culture as “lean”, or it is taken straight from the bottle.

Codeine syrup addiction is a problem across Africa, with reports of addiction in Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Chad.

In Nigeria, lawmakers estimate that the residents of just two states in the country’s north consume more than three million bottles of it each day.

The codeine itself is imported, but the syrup is made in Nigeria by more than 20 pharmaceutical companies.

“These days, there is no family that has not been affected,” said Oluyemisi Ogun, the medical director at a psychiatric hospital in Lagos, at a symposium in Nigeria last year.

“Our children are at risk as much as our husbands, wives and other relatives.”

The Nigerian Federal Government has taken the commendable step to ban the production and importation of codeine as an active pharmaceutical ingredient for cough syrup preparations as a way of obstructing the abuse of the substance among Nigerians.

In Kenya, the cough syrup of choice is Benylin, which is categorised as a codeine narcotic pain reliever and cough suppressant similar to morphine and hydrocodone.

Since the upsurge of the epidemic, the price of this over-the-counter drug has risen from Kshs. 60 to Kshs. 900.

The quantities supplied are so immense that, according to The Standard newspaper, a dealer, who sought anonymity, says he sells 50 boxes a week. Each box contains 35 units of codeine, with each unit going for Sh900. An average of Sh1,6 million per week therefore stands to be made from the sale of the cough syrup.

Statistics produced by local anti-drug organisations show that the use of the drug has been noticed in primary and secondary schools, which have, in turn, recorded an increase in the school drop-out rate.

In Zimbabwe, the preferred Broncleer cough syrup, commonly known as “Bronco”, is made in South Africa and smuggled into the country, mostly through Beitbridge, according to media reports.

Although the Zimbabwean Government has banned the importation and distribution of codeine and codeine syrups, it is still being peddled on the streets for as little as $3.

Possession of the drug leads to five months in prison or a $500 fine.

Treatment and rehabilitation

The treatment of opioid addiction is expensive.

The reason for the high cost is that, aside from rehabilitation programmes, opiate addicts often have psychiatric problems, such as anxiety and depression, which are agitated by the stress of withdrawal.

Psychosocial interventions, including psychiatric care, psychotherapy, counselling and social work services commonly form part of the post-rehab maintenance programmes.

Because not many Africans can afford such interventions, the treatment of opioid abusers is dire.

Instances have been reported of patients being chained to the floors of rehabilitation centres to keep them from harming themselves and others.

Clearly, opioid addiction is a serious problem to which health authorities should be directing much greater resources than is the case at present. – This is Africa.

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