Egypt’s Opioid Painkiller Abusing Population Grows

By Victoria Kim 07/22/15

The United Nations estimated there were at least five billion pills circulating Egypt just a few years ago.

Tramadol in Egypt
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The number of Egyptians who are hooked on tramadol, a highly-addictive synthetic opioid painkiller, shows no signs of abating amid a struggling economy, The Daily Beast reports. Though comprehensive drug use statistics in Egypt are not available, the drug has been popping up on the African continent by the ton.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated there were at least five billion pills circulating Egypt in 2012. “It’s like the waves of the ocean. There’s that much of it,” a local supplier said. Seventy percent of admissions to the addiction wing of the Qasr el-Aini hospital in Cairo were linked to tramadol in 2014 alone, according to the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper.

Some attribute the growing tramadol abuse to economic hardship; a lack of skilled jobs and high inflation has Egyptians struggling to make ends meet. “Food, gas, everything is so expensive,” Karim el-Bakry, a taxi driver addicted to the drug told The Daily Beast. “People are exhausted and take things like tramadol to just keep going.” The affordability of the drug has made it accessible to even the poorest Egyptians.

In 2012, Joseph Braude reported on drug abuse in post-Arab Spring Egypt for The Fix. He spoke to Ghattas Iskander, a leading anti-drug campaigner based in Cairo, who told Braude that the former Mubarak regime was itself a supplier of tramadol—just one example of what Iskander said is a longstanding practice of using narcotics as an instrument of social control.

“The government has been working hand in glove with drug lords since the days of [former Egyptian president Anwar] Saddat,” he told The Fix. “As for the addicts, of course they’ll work with anybody.”

Despite the telling signs of a growing addiction problem, Hisham Ramy, head of the Ministry of Health’s drug addiction unit, says it’s not a new trend. “People have been using opiates here for thousands of years. They are just trying to rationalize it now by saying life is hard,” he told The Daily Beast.

Treating this problem is a challenge, as drug treatment is absurdly lacking in the country, according to Braude. Not only is the country unable to provide proper medical services due to the poor economy, some “hardline Islamists” reject modern rehabilitation practices such as the 12 steps on ideological grounds. However, a small group of activists are working to expand treatment and gain acceptance in the struggling nation.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr