/ 27 February 2024

Ghana’s opioid crisis brings pain and death

Tramadol Capsules
The highly addictive pain medication Tramadol is being sold as a street drug. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

A public health crisis is brewing in Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s northern region, thanks to a rise in the misuse of Tramadol — a prescription opioid pain medication. Young people in particular are becoming addicted to the medication, which releases endorphins and blocks pain signals.

It’s increasingly being sold as a street drug. And doses of Tramadol sold in street markets are typically two to five times higher than the standard prescribed dose, heightening its addictive potential.

The signs of large-scale use are clear on the streets of Tamale, with people staring blankly into the distance, or removing their clothes without reason or warning.

“The misuse of Tramadol has been with us for a while,” said Eugene Dordoye, a psychiatrist at Ghana’s Ho Teaching Hospital.

The problem is not isolated to Ghana. The United Nations Office on Drugs and

Crime reports that Africa “accounts for half of the quantities of pharmaceutical opioids, especially Tramadol, seized globally between 2017 and 2021”.

Misuse of Tramadol is still a relatively taboo subject and experts warn of real problems if a more nuanced approach to curbing abuse isn’t adopted.

Olumuyiwa Omonaiye, co-author of a recently-published study by the Institute of Health Transformation at Deakin University in Australia, said the effect of opioids isn’t well documented in Africa. More research is needed to understand the long-term effects of misuses, and then to work out the best interventions.

But there are tell-tale signs of a serious problem: “In recent years, authorities have observed a notable surge in the illicit use of Tramadol among younger populations in African countries, evident from the substantial quantities of this substance confiscated.”

Researchers involved in that study are now calling for more targeted interventions to  address the problem, maintaining that the non-medical use of Tramadol is a  multidimensional issue with far-reaching economic, societal and safety implications.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly  newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian . It’s designed to be read and  shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here