Opioid crisis engulfs blockaded Gaza Strip
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — An opioid crisis has quietly spread in the Gaza Strip, trapping thousands in the hell of addiction and adding another layer of misery to the blockaded and impoverished coastal territory.
The scourge can be traced to the mass import of cheap opioid-based Tramadol pain pills through smuggling tunnels under Gaza’s border more than a decade ago. A more addictive black-market form of the drug called Tramal has since taken hold.
“I have seen the top elites taking it — university students, girls and respectful people,” said Dr. Fadel Ashour, who treats addicts in his dimly lit clinic.
Tramadol, a synthetic opioid analgesic, is considered a controlled substance by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in the same category as well-known medications like Valium and Xanax.
The WHO study cited the blockade, high unemployment among university graduates and never-ending conflict with Israel as factors associated with “widespread” Tramadol abuse.
It said users turned to the drug to “escape problems,” obtain a “feeling of relaxation,” to “not think” and to fall asleep.
Tramal, believed to be a more addictive black market form of Tramadol, arrived later, gaining popularity after the first war between Hamas and Israel in 2009.
Tramal was cheap, less than 50 cents a tablet, and people discovered its sedative effects at a time when they were “trying to overcome their anxiety because Gaza was a very traumatic environment,” said Dr. Ashour.
But in recent months, prices have shot up. A single pill can cost about $20, well beyond most people’s means.
Being a health worker himself, Abu Karim was able to get prescriptions to buy the milder Tramadol legally and more affordably.
“It was not as powerful as the smuggled Tramal, but with more pills, it does part of the job,” he said.
Today, he’s among the few patients at the Hope Center, the first and only rehab facility in Gaza. Since opening at Gaza’s only psychiatric hospital in 2017, it has treated 230 people, 90 percent of them tramadex users.
Nearly a year of border protests against the Israeli blockade have added a new element to the crisis. Hundreds of young men have been shot by the Israeli army, which says it is defending its border.
Mahmoud, a 29-year-old, said he became addicted to Lyrica after he was shot during a protest. Unemployed and unmarried, he is now being treated by Dr. Ashour.
“I don’t want to reach a level in which I lose my personality and dignity because of the drugs,” said Mahmoud, who would not give his family name because of the social stigma associated with addiction. “I want to stop.”