On World Drug Day UNODC recalls the urgent need to step up access to counselling and treatment for drug users in Nigeria


Abuja 26 June 2020: This year’s International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking with the theme “Better Knowledge for Better Care” stresses the important role data must play in the design of effective strategies in the areas of drug prevention, treatment and care. The COVID-19 pandemic - like no other in recent history - has amplified the urgent need for evidence-based drug prevention education in schools, data driven sensitization and advocacy as well as knowledge-based treatment and counselling services for the more than 14 million drug users, and in particular the more than 3 million persons living with some form of drug use disorder in Nigeria.

One such initiative is DrugHelpNet, a network of Nigerian drug treatment professionals, volunteering to provide over-the-phone assistance to drug users and their families. Born out of the immediate need of ensuring access by drug users to counselling and treatment despite COVID-19 related lockdowns and related restrictions, it has quickly become clear that DrugHelpNet has great potential to help address the far more fundamental drug treatment crisis in Nigeria.

The 2018 Nigeria Drug Use Survey conducted by the National Bureau of Statistics with the support of UNODC found that 80% of high-risk drug users reported the need for treatment, yet 40 percent amongst them had been unable to access such treatment despite the willingness to do so. The cost of treatment, stigma associated with accessing such services as well as stigma associated with substance use, and the lack of adequate drug treatment services across the country all constitute major barriers in accessing drug treatment in Nigeria. All these factors are being mitigated through the creation of DrugHelpNet. Drug users and their families can access the service at no cost, they can do so anonymously and from the privacy of their homes, and counsellors are usually available well beyond the normal opening hours of drop-in-centers.

Launched in April 2020 with initially 80 volunteer counsellors, DrugHelpNet has quickly grown in strength and counts today 129 treatment professionals. Most of these counsellors share a long-term partnership with UNODC and have extensively benefitted from training provided through the EU funded and UNODC implemented project Response to Drugs and Related Organised Crime in Nigeria.

Since its inception, DrugHelpNet has provided much needed assistance to 1087 drug users and their families. This assistance often translated from over-the-phone counselling to physically intervening to provide urgent psychosocial support and, in some instances, legal aid support to drug users in dire circumstances.

The number of drug users who have received support from DrugHelpNet in such a short time is remarkable, but it underscores the urgent need for innovative measures to address the paucity of drug treatment services in Nigeria.

A recent U-Report Poll conducted by UNICEF and UNODC corroborates this data and suggests that drug use has worsened during the COVID-19 imposed lockdown. Over 84,000 mostly young people from all 36 states of the Federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) participated in the poll. Half of the respondents felt that drug use had increased in their communities while only 32 percent felt that drug use had either decreased or stayed the same. Moreover, 51 percent of respondents knew someone who had used drugs during the past 12 months; while only 39 percent of respondents knew where to go for help with drug use issues.

With the present reality of the COVID-19 pandemic and the probable consequences of increase in drug use, the need for urgent and innovative measures to address drug treatment issues has become more pertinent. Drug use issues should be included in formulating health-related responses to the pandemic to ensure holistic and properly coordinated effort in addressing the myriad issues which may arise as a result of the pandemic. Whilst DrugHelpNet provides an innovative solution, it is only a step in the right direction to resolve the gaping lack of drug treatment services in the country.

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