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Emerging epidemic of prescription drug abuse in Kenya

By Kizito Lubano | June 15th 2016

Prescription drug abuse is fast becoming the new epidemic with 14 per cent of Kenyan adults taking at least one prescription drug, and eight per cent taking three or more prescribed medications.

From stressed out students cramming for exams, to ambitious professionals looking for an edge and recovering soldiers returning from battle, prescription medication has become the ultimate quick fix.

Most addictive prescription medication can be separated into three general categories: Opioids, CNS depressants, and stimulants.

Opioids, also referred to as narcotic painkillers, attach themselves to the body’s opioid receptors, which are proteins throughout the body (including brain, spinal cord, organs). Once attached, the morphine derivative can reduce pain in the affected area. Unfortunately, opioids also influence parts of the brain that handle pleasure, which can cause addiction.

Opioids are commonly prescribed for traumatic injuries or after surgical procedures. They are the most popular type of abused prescription drug and include: Codeine, morphine, methadone, fentanyl and analogs, and oxycodone.

Central nervous system (CNS) depressants, also known as sedatives and tranquilisers, inhibit the activity of some brain cells which results in drowsiness or a calm mental state. Alcohol is one such example so when combined with medication, it causes confusion, slowed breathing, and seizures.

CNS depressants are commonly prescribed for anxiety and sleep disorders. The most abused include: barbiturates, benzodiazepines (Valium, Xanax), and sleep medications (Ambien, Lunesta).

Stimulants mimic and increase the chemical structure of specific brain neurotransmitters and allows messages to be sent to each other. Using them improves attention, focus, alertness, and energy.

When abused, stimulants can cause anxiety, high blood pressure, and in some cases, heart attack. The most abused are amphetamines and methylphenidates.

What does the rising numbers in prescription drug abuse mean for the future? We need to consider and implement a Prescription Drug Monitoring Programme (PDMP) to identify possible drug use and or distribution abuse.

Moving forward, the challenge for policy and healthcare professionals seems to lie in balancing the monitoring of prescription drugs without infringing on patient privacy and not allowing restrictions to affect those who have legitimate need for medication.

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