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U.S. Opioid Epidemic Crosses Borders as Growing Codeine Addiction Plagues Africa

In addition to cocaine, heroin, weed and even fetus bleaching pills, it seems Africa has found a new drug of choice that raises fears of an impending opioid epidemic. Reports reveal that a cough syrup made with codeine is now being misused by school children as young as 11 years old to “get high.”

The codeine-made cough syrup has gained wide popularity due to its affordability ease of access as an over the counter drug, unlike other hard, illegal drugs which are often expensive and hard to get a hold of.

A study carried out by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) revealed that the abuse of codeine goes back as far as 2014, where more than 400 people suffering from codeine abuse were admitted to drug treatment centers. The study further revealed a 50 percent increase in codeine importation into Africa between 2009 and 2014.

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Codeine plant

In April 2018, an investigation conducted in Nigeria by the BBC uncovered a criminal underworld where unscrupulous pharmaceutical dealers supply the syrup in the black market. Thousands of teenagers and youth are already hooked to the drug, with some dropping out of school and roaming the streets in search of their fix.

According to the investigation, the desire to appear “cool,” depression, or grief are some of the factors pushing these young people into codeine abuse. The strawberry-tasting opioid is peddled on the streets or in nightclubs, and is normally taken straight from the bottle or mixed with soft drinks.

What is codeine, and why is it easily available if it’s so bad?

Codeine belongs to a family of drugs known as opioids. Morphine and heroin also belong to this family, which is a class of drugs meant to be used as pain relievers. They work by blocking perception of pain in the brain, and instead boost your “pleasure” feelings, capable of giving you a “euphoric high” if taken in large quantities.

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Strawberry syrup

Normally, opioids are only available through a doctor’s prescription. Control is important, as excessive consumption can lead to kidney damage, mental health damage, schizophrenia and even hallucinations.

In Africa, corruption, societal moral decadence, and some say even westernization has opened a backdoor for codeine syrup to make its way into the black market, leading to a high rate of abuse and the fear of an opioid epidemic outbreak. Reports of addiction have been made not only in Nigeria and South Africa, but also in Ghana, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Chad.

Following the reports, a crackdown on codeine syrups has now been initiated, aiming at eliminating the drug from Africa altogether. Nigeria has banned importation of codeine, and has ordered all domestic pharmaceutical companies to stop making any codeine-based medicines. Zimbabwe has also banned all forms of importation and distribution of codeine. Those found in possession of the drug now risk five months in prison or a $500 fine.

In addition to the governments banning codeine, rehab centers have been set up to help addicts recover, especially in the psychological sense, since opioid  addiction severely affects a person’s ability to function normally in everyday life.

With all efforts in place, questions still linger on what will happen with the existing stockpiles of codeine syrup. It remains a matter of time to see whether or not the war on codeine will be won, and the possible opioid epidemic avoided.

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Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer born and raised in Kenya. He is professionally trained as a public health officer but loves writing more. When not writing, he enjoys reading, doing charity work and spending time with friends and family. He is also a crazy pianist!

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