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General News of Monday, 10 February 2014


Ghanaian doctors, nurses addicted to ‘heroin drug’ pethidine

Ultimate Radio’s investigations have revealed that several doctors and nurses in Ghana’s health facilities are abusing Pethidine, a strong painkiller that has the components of heroin and cocaine. The only Psychiatrist at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital in Kumasi, Dr. Godwin Donnir, who confirmed this in an exclusive interview with Ultimate Radio, says the drug has severe side effects on its users, some of whom have become very addicted to it.

Pethidine is a strong analgesic for any form of pain. But when wrongly administered or taken in overdose, one portrays same symptoms as a cocaine or heroin addict. It is an Opioid analgesic drug used to treat pain particularly after an operation or during child birth. Pethidine is supplied in the form of a pink ampoule that can be opened, drawn up in a syringe and injected. This is the type of medicine that is prescribed by doctors for patients that suffer from high levels of pain caused by cancer, mental disorders and victims of serious injuries in motor accidents.

It is a relaxing agent which works on the nerves and brain to reduce the pain and stress a patient feels. It has, however, been found that medical staff are themselves abusing the drug and have become addicted to this substance. The immediate effect is that, such medical staff poses a severe threat to patients under their care. In some cases, doctors and nurses who are dazed by the drugs could end up harming their patients or even killing them by administering overdose of injections or drugs. Reports suggest the drug is being used by the doctors and nurses to reduce pain and stress.

Chronic dependence on the drug can also lead to severe organ damage, respiratory depression, infection of the heart, subsequent collapse of the lungs and kidney, and liver failure.

Dr. Donnir, who made the startling revelations to Ultimate Radio, also confirmed that some nurses and doctors have died from the highly addictive painkiller. The drug is regularly administered in the emergency units and maternity wards at hospitals.

It is not a common drug to be bought ordinarily in a pharmacy. Ghana’s Pharmacy Act prohibits acquisition of the drug over the counter in pharmacies, and all hospitals have one procedure of dispensing it. In the Pharmacy Act, the supply of all Class A or B drugs such as Pethidine must be properly monitored, recorded and be signed for by a doctor. Some health practitioners have, however, found ingenious ways to work around these restrictions to get the drug to feed their addiction.

In some cases, hospital staffs have been busted stealing the drug or illegally altering patient records to fuel their addiction.

In the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital for instance, a nurse was struck off her duties because she frequently altered patient prescription records to get an extra patch of Pethidine for herself and was endangering patients.

Ultimate Radio can confirm that, at the Korle-Bu Teaching Hospital, a rehabilitation facility has been established on its premises to deal with staff addiction to the drug.

The Psychiatrist at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, Dr. Godwin Donnir, told Ultimate Radio the abuse was also happening at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital, and could cause many lives.

“Pethidine addiction is on the rise especially among health workers including doctors, nurses and laboratory workers. It is easily accessible to health workers because as I am seated here, I can order for Pethidine which will be readily given to me for medical purposes and this makes health workers prone to abusing the drug. It is a problem across the country and even in the Ashanti Region and in Komfo Anokye here, it has become one of our biggest headaches. We have nurses, we have laboratory technicians and staff and we have doctors who are abusing and using this,” he disclosed.

He explained that the drug is a psychoactive substance and when taken could alter the brain and emotional function of people. He indicated that it had the same effect as alcohol, cannabis, cocaine or heroin could have on a person in taking away worries and situating the person in a delusional world of their own.

“Just as any addiction, the person spends all his lifetime earnings and time in search of the substance and it means that without the drug, they cannot do anything productive. They come to work, inject themselves and feel drowsy sleeping all the time and can barely concentrate. It affects your cognitive functions and one common mistake will be using someone’s prescription for another”.

Dr. Donnir suggested that a total ban on the drug is in the best interest of the country. According to him, there still exist less harmful alternative drugs that can serve the same purpose.

“Pethidine has more side effects than any other medicine you can think of; knowing that if you use Pethidine for more than three days, you become automatically addicted. It is not a drug we should entertain in our hospitals and on the policy level there should be a ban on Pethidine,” he opined.

He called on the Ministry of Health to embrace the policy of prohibiting the importation and use of the drug citing countries like Australia where the drug is banned by law. In South Africa, there are stricter regulations and monitoring for the use of the drug. Some health workers have been prosecuted in South Africa for abusing the drug.

Speaking to Ultimate Radio on the issue, a Representative of the Pharmaceutical Society and the Pharmacy Council of Ghana, who also doubles as a Pharmacist and a Lecturer at the Department of Clinical and Social Pharmacy at the KNUST, Dr. Kwame Buabeng, confirmed that addiction to the drug has become a concern among medical practitioners not only in Ghana but across the world.

Dr. Buabeng, however, disagreed on the proposal for a total ban on its use. He rather called for the state to strengthen drug regulation and control procedures since the medicine had its genuine medical functions. He is of the opinion that an outright ban could prove disadvantageous to patients whose levels of pain require such strong analgesics.

Ghana’s Chief Psychiatrist, Dr. Akwasi Osei, who also spoke to Ultimate Radio, expressed similar sentiments about the use of Pethidine drug which he bluntly described as being akin to heroin addiction.

He said “if one gets addicted to it, the body craves for it in just short hourly intervals”.

He explained that without taking it often, the body reacts badly urging its addicts to go for more of the drug. He noted that symptoms of craving for the drug included sweating profusely, having a runny nose and the whole body shaking uncomfortably with some pains. He said the nature of the drug was that users at some points never get satisfied and crave for more dosages which could lead to the person’s eventual death.

He said the problem is threatening the medical profession in the country as doctors lose control of themselves whenever they take the drug and can even fall asleep in front of their patients while attending to them.

Dr. Osei, however, dismissed Dr. Donnir’s proposals for the drug to be outlawed in the country explaining that the drug’s efficacy was still needful in controlling some medical conditions. He expressed worry about the country’s drug control and regulatory mechanisms which makes it possible for the public and mostly medical practitioners to buy the drug from some pharmaceutical establishments without any questioning or restrictions.

Dr. Osei also made a strong case for addicted people to be regarded as people suffering from a mental disorder who require some treatment of a sort to wean them off dependency on the drug.

“Nobody in his normal senses wants to be addicted to this drug. The person has been pushed into the condition and must be seen as having a disease, but so far we have not done enough to handle our own staff that are in this condition,” he lamented.

He says the Ministry of Health has put in place some guidelines to help the health service identify health practitioners and staff who are addicted to be helped.

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