Drug addicts can contract coronavirus easier

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The President of the Nigerian Society of Substance Use Prevention and Treatment Professionals (ISSUP Nigeria) and Founder/Executive Director Global Initiative on Substance Abuse (GISA), Dr Martin Agwogie, speaks with Omolara Akintoye on why drug abusers are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 pandemic. Excerpts:

In which ways are you involved in combating the COVID-19 pandemic in Nigeria?

We are involved at different levels of service delivery as volunteers and as part of our primary responsibilities. We are collaborating with the United Nation Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) through the DrugHelpNet to provide online/phone services for persons who use drugs. Those who are well to do among us are providing financial and material support to the less privilege in their respective communities.

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Some of our members are involved in the distribution of palliatives in collaboration with different organisations. Above all, we are helping our members and the general public to adhere to the guidelines as provided by the government and NCDC.

That is the wearing of face mask, social distancing, regular handwashing with soap and water, the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer among others.

What do you think about drug users at this period?

It is really difficult to time for persons who use drugs. By reason of their drug use, their immune system may have been compromised and put them at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

Secondly, they may not be in the appropriate disposition to adhere strictly to personal hygiene and other precautionary measures.

Because of short supplies, difficulties accessing or high cost of the preferred substance of use at this time, there is the tendency that they will improvise or use adulterated substances thereby exposing them to other health consequences.

They are likely to be more desperate as they may not have the resources to purchase drugs and may resort to stealing among other vices. This could also put the public at risk.

What should the government do to this population of drug addicts?

Government at different levels should consider the interest of this pollution in their prevention measures and in isolation centres. They should have at least one addiction treatment expert in each of the isolation centres who will provide the necessary treatment intervention for persons who use a drug that may contract the disease.

This will be provided alongside treatment for COVID-19. They need special interventions which other general practitioners may not have the expertise to handle. It is also important that the government recognize this population as a potential risk for the transmission of Coronavirus (COVID-19) because of their lifestyle and take appropriate measures.

What do you have to tell drug users?

This is a difficult time but it also comes with opportunities for them. Some of them who had possibly thought that they could not do without using the drug in a day may have been able to overcome it in the absence of drug supplies.

That on its own is a positive step in developing self-efficacy. That can encourage them to commence self-cessation and eventually stop. This may not be the case for every person who uses drugs and for all substances of abuse. Withdrawal from some substances of abuse could be very traumatic.

In that case, they should seek professional help, use the UNODC DrugHelpNet or get in touch with any of our members, they will be properly guided. They should avoid improvising or using adulterated substances, this may put them at higher health risk.

They should also avoid the consequences of an overdose in the phase of relaxation of the lockdown. Avoid the temptation to make up or complement for the period of no access to a particular substance as this may be dangerous.

The sudden return to the usual dose prior to lockdown could also have dare consequences. Above all, they should know that they are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

What else can government do in containing the spread of COVID-19?

The government should adopt both the carrot and stick approach. They should be strict in the enforcement of the prevention guidelines but with a human face.

They should do more in the area of public enlightenment on preventive measures. The distribution of palliatives to the less privilege should devoid of discrimination and politics.

Beyond government, this is the time for the well to do in the society to reach out to the less privilege in their neighbourhoods. The less privilege that one fails to take care of, will in the name of looking for what to eat contract the disease and put the rich and their children at risk. I want to believe that everyone has come to the understanding that when (COVID-19) comes the billions of Naira in the bank account becomes useless.

What can people do generally to protect themselves from contracting the virus?

They should maintain personal hygiene, regular handwashing with soap and water, wearing of face mask, physical distancing, use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, avoid unnecessary events or journeys and other guidelines as provided by the government.

What is your advice to schools in the phase of this pandemic?

Government and school administrators should not be in a hurry to re-open schools. Schools, especially primary and secondary, should be the very last setting to re-open.

While adults may be able to cope with precautionary measures, it becomes difficult for children. More so, the school system is one of the settings where you have a very large number of people under the same roof with heavy traffic.

We must do everything possible to prevent Coronavirus (COVID-19) in the school system to protect the children. In the interim, schools and parents should make use of online resources. It is really difficult to time for everyone. Schools will also need to be extra vigilant in terms of substance abuse when they resume.

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