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Fighting drug addiction among Maldives youths

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2085/Taylor
A young man smokes heroin in his room in Male, the Maldives capital. Intravenous drugs use has increased among adolescents, creating concerns about health, safety and the potential spread of HIV/AIDS.

By Sarah Crowe and Rajat Madhok

MALE, Maldives, 11 March 2009 – In the tropical tourists’ paradise of Maldives, beyond the waving palms and turquoise pools, lurks the ugly problem of youth drug addiction.

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Many adolescents in this isolated country of islands in the Indian Ocean, which lives off its unique, natural beauty, have turned to a life of deadly addiction that threatens society. Drug addiction touches nearly every family and is a big worry for the new government.

And as injection drug use becomes more common, so too does the risk of increased incidence of HIV, hepatitis C and other blood-borne diseases.

“Young people have to have hope. Until we are able to give them hope, this is not going to go away,” said Vice President Mohammed Wahid Hasaan, a former UNICEF Representative. “If this is not checked, it will have serious effects on the social fabric of the country and will undermine the economy, as well.”

Threat of HIV transmission
UNICEF is working with addicted young people in the country to give them goals and, more important, hope for the future. The road to recovery is tough and often requires that the addicts take medication to help them withdraw from hard drugs.

In Male, UNICEF is supporting non-governmental organizations such as Journey, whose volunteers are dedicated to helping drug addicts through counselling and detoxification. They are also preparing for a potential increase in HIV transmissions.
Few drug users here get tested for HIV – and that’s a cause for concern. Although less than 1 per cent of the population is estimated to be living with HIV, the true figure could be higher.

“We are looking at prevention of HIV, because that’s the next issue we might be facing,” said UNICEF Maldives Child Protection Officer Mohamed Naeem. “At the moment, Maldives is a low-prevalence country, but because of the high number of young people injecting drugs, there is a big risk that this could change.”

‘I will never forget’
For those who volunteer for rehab, there is hope. At the drug rehabilitation centre on another island near the capital, more than 100 addicts are being treated. Some return time and again, trying to get clean, sometimes resisting the programme’s rigid discipline.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2105/Taylor
Residents line up for roll call outside a drug rehabilitation centre run by the National Narcotics Control Bureau on Himmafushi Island, Maldives.

“When I first joined here, I thought I was taken to a cage,” said a young addict at the centre. “After some time I realized this thing really works. They are telling us what real life should be.”

“Sometimes I robbed people to get drugs,” said another addict. “I couldn’t sleep without drugs. I couldn’t eat. I will never forget that I am an addict and what I suffered through because of drugs.”

Treated addicts therapeutically
It isn’t just the addicts themselves who are worried about the future. The growing number of young addicts, combined with harsh prison sentences for drug offenses, is also threatening the country’s future labour supply. 

Under the current laws, drug users can face up to 25 years in prison. Minister of Health Dr. Aiminath Jameel says that changes in the laws will soon be tabled in Parliament so that addicts are treated therapeutically, rather than criminally.

The ‘Wake Up’ drug abuse-prevention campaign – launched here in 2007 by the National Narcotics Bureau, Journey and UNICEF – is also starting to show positive results in reaching young people before they become addicts.




February 2009: UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports on a growing crisis in the Maldives – drug addiction.
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