COVID-19: UNODC Launches Network of Health Workers to Assist Over 3m Drug Users

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By Bennett Oghifo

The Nigerian office of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has established a network of 80 frontline health workers, including Doctors, Psychologists, Nurses and Counsellors to provide over-the-phone assistance to drug users in need, during this lockdown period, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a statement, yesterday, by the National Project Officer, Outreach and Communications, UNODC Nigeria Country Office, Abuja, Sylvester Tunde Atere, “In order to provide immediate and practical relief, UNODC within the framework of the EU funded Nigeria Drugs Project, partnered with 80 frontline health workers, including medical doctors, drug counsellors and allied professionals across Nigeria to provide over-the-phone assistance for drug users or families who need such services during the COVID-19.”

The said the health professionals enthusiastically responded to UNODC’s request to establish the network and were trained and certified under the project in drug treatment using the Treatnet methodology and/or Universal Treatment Curriculum (UTC).

It said, “Based on the 2019 Drug Use Survey in Nigeria, UNODC estimates that there are more than three million Nigerians living with some form of a drug use disorder.”

The UNODC said they instituted the network of health workers because the lockdown was particularly heavy on drug users and their families who have difficulty in assessing treatment and counseling services.

The distress, the statement said, could be related to drug or alcohol withdrawal, loss of appetite, inability to sleep, or more seriously, a psychotic episode that the user or their family is unable to manage during the lockdown.

The 2019 Drug Use Survey in Nigeria revealed that there is a clear gap in meeting the needs for treatment and care for people with drug use disorders.

UNODC said, “Around 40% among those reported that they had wanted to receive drug treatment but were unable to access such services. The vulnerability of the drug use population is of grave concern, especially as the global community grapples to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and flatten the curve of infections.

“Due to their poorer health profile, drug users are more vulnerable to experiencing COVID-19 more severely. In case they have pre-existing conditions, they will be at greater risk. “Given the stigma experienced by drug users, they might be unable to access health care services at this time. In addition, during this period of lockdown, drug users can face drug-related health issues like withdrawals for which they might feel the need to talk to a health care provider. It is imperative therefore that the national responses to this public health emergency, takes drug users into consideration.”

According to the statement, drug users or their family members who experience distress during the lockdown and require advice whether medical or from a counsellor would be able to contact any of the doctors/counsellors in the geopolitical zones where they reside for advice.

The statement said, “Ensuring access to treatment services for drug users is key to achieving SDG3 – Good Health and Wellbeing and we must ensure that we Leave No One Behind by not excluding drug users from the COVID-19 response.”