Afghan kids paying price of opium addiction

by Cesar Chelala

NEW YORK — The revelation that the number of opium-addicted Afghan children has reached new highs is a tragic unintended consequence of that war. It dramatically illustrates how adult war games doom generations of children to a miserable life.

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 percent of homes where adult addicts lived, the children tested showed signs of significant drug exposure, according to the researchers. According to one researcher, the children exhibit typical behavior of opium and heroin addicts. If the drug is withdrawn, they go through a withdrawal process.

The results of the study should sound an alarm. Not only were opium products found in indoor air samples but the concentrations were extremely high. This suggests that, as with secondhand cigarette smoke, contaminated indoor air and surfaces pose a serious risk to women and children’s health.

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 has increased from 920,000 in 2005 to over 1.5 million, according to Zalmai Afzali, spokesman for the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics 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.

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 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- narcotics officials have said that such widespread domestic drug addiction is a relatively new problem. Among the factors leading to increased levels of drug use is the high unemployment rate throughout the country, the social upheavals caused by this war and those that preceded it, and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan who became addicts while abroad.

In both of those countries, the high number of opium-addicted children is also a serious problem, particularly among street children.

In Tehran, although the government has opened several shelters for street children, many more centers are still needed to take care of them.

According to some estimates, there are in Tehran between 35,000 and 50,000 children who are forced by their parents or other adults to live and beg in the streets or to work in sweat shops. These children are subject to all kinds of abuse, and many among them end up in organized prostitution rings and become part of the sex trade. They are transported to other countries where they are obliged to work as prostitutes while others simply disappear.

The situation is equally serious in Pakistan, where in Karachi alone there are tens of thousands of child addicts, mainly to hashish.

According to Rana Asif Habib, president of the Initiator Human Development Foundation, due to the increase in the number of street children, street crime is also on the rise as children get involved in drug trafficking in the city.

Those who inject drugs face the additional risk of HIV-infection by sharing contaminated syringes. “Drug addiction and HIV/AIDS are, together, Afghanistan’s silent tsunami,” declared Tariq Suliman, director of the Nejat’s rehabilitation center to the U.N. Office for Humanitarian Affairs. There are about 40 treatment centers for addicts dispersed throughout the country, but most are small, poorly staffed and under- resourced.

For the first time, an international team including World Health Organization officials and experts from Johns Hopkins University and the Medical University of Vienna has joined efforts to develop a treatment regime for young children.

The U.S. and its allies have the resources to rapidly expand and adequately fund and resource such treatment and rehabilitation centers throughout the country. Anything less will be yet another serious indictment of an occupation gone astray.

Cesar Chelala, M.D., is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award.