News / Africa

Drug Abuse is Major Threat to Street Kids

Living on the streets - Young woman holds a child while sniffing glue. Credit: Braitstein
Living on the streets - Young woman holds a child while sniffing glue. Credit: Braitstein

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Joe DeCapua
There are millions of children around the world living or working on the streets. A new study says their struggle to survive is made even harder by high levels of drug use.


The journal Addiction has published a systematic review of 50 studies on street kids conducted in 22 countries. It describes a “hidden epidemic” of drug use that “poses serious health threats.”

Dr. Paula Braitstein, who’s based in Kenya, is the senior author of the study. She explained why she and her colleagues wanted to learn more about drug abuse among street children.

“We live full time in Eldoret, most of us, and on a daily basis we see children and adolescents, even young children, walking around the streets of Eldoret with glue bottles essentially stuck to their noses. You see it really across Kenya and many parts of Africa as you’re traveling.  I’m an epidemiologist, and we’re very concerned about the health and well being of these young people.”

Braitstein is an associate research professor at Indiana University School of Medicine. She said over the years there was little research specifically done on street kid drug abuse. That prompted the in-depth review of past studies looking for information.
Street youth reaches for a battered football (soccer ball) with one hand while holding a glue bottle in the other. Credit BraitsteinStreet youth reaches for a battered football (soccer ball) with one hand while holding a glue bottle in the other. Credit Braitstein
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Street youth reaches for a battered football (soccer ball) with one hand while holding a glue bottle in the other. Credit Braitstein
Street youth reaches for a battered football (soccer ball) with one hand while holding a glue bottle in the other. Credit Braitstein

“ I wasn’t surprised to see that 60 percent overall of street involved youth in resource-constrained settings use some sort of substance. I was surprised to see that close to 50 percent of them were actually using inhalants - predominantly glue, paint thinner, that kind of thing. I thought that was very, very high,” she said.

Slang words for using inhalants include sniffing, huffing, dusting and bagging. Street kids using inhalants are most likely found in low and middle income countries. Inhalants are cheap and easy to get.

“They’re so detrimental to a person’s health,” she said, “They cause really a lot of shot term effects, for example, sudden heart failure. They cause teratogenic effects. So if a girl is pregnant – she’s sniffing – and it gets passed on to her baby and causes birth defects of various kinds. It causes a huge amount of cognitive effects. Basically, their brains become impaired. The substances in the glue basically just kill your brain cells.”

The study found that street children also use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. But inhalants are not regulated or illegal.

In high income countries, injection drugs are more popular, including heroin. Injecting drugs carries a high risk of HIV infection, as well as many other diseases, because of contaminated needles.

Braitstein said that researchers know why drug use is so widespread among street children.

“The most common reasons were essentially peer pressure, the need to survive. A lot of children report using drugs in order to cope with cold, hunger, fear -- just for pleasure -- experimentation and courage.”

Street children abusing drugs can also have a much harder time re-entering society.

“Once a child is addicted to something like glue, it makes it very difficult for them to go to school – have a normal family life. It affects their brain. It affects their cognitive abilities to learn, for example, to adapt, to adjust. Their brains will have changed. Their personalities will have changed. And they don’t understand it and the people around them don’t understand it,” she said.

Braitstein called the study a “wake-up call” for policymakers, international NGOs, the World Health Organization and UNICEF.

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