There is no question that Covid-19 is the most dreaded disease the world over now. Be that as it may, for Malawi there is another killer on the prowl that is silently wreaking havoc among the country’s urban youths.
This is excessive intake of counterfeit versions of gin, whiskey, rum, brandy, vodka or tequila, some imported and others distilled locally.
The illicit cocktails, which are not certified as safe for consumption by the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS), are mostly sold openly in small liquor outlets in shady locations, mostly in Lilongwe, Blantyre and Mzuzu.
Records at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) show that the facility gets up to 15 people daily with illnesses related to consumption of alcohol.
Last year, nine people were brought in dead at KCH after excessive intake of alcohol, according to Head of the Medicine Department at the hospital, Lilian Chunda. Six of the nine were under 30 years of age.
But she is quick to add that this number does not give a true picture of the severity of the problem.
“If we were to do a full analysis, including those patients who were admitted as a result of alcohol-related illnesses, the figure of those who eventually died last year, will be higher. That is not all; the young people who survive have long-term neurological damage,” Chunda said.
Although we were unable to get fresh figures for Zomba and Blantyre but director for Zomba Mental Hospital Immaculate Chamangwana said in 2018 that 300 people mostly youths go mad every month due to alcohol and drug abuse and are referred to her facility. She was speaking during commemoration of the World Mental Day in November that year.
According to Chunda, the problem is that some of the liquor is cheap, and therefore affordable by anyone. Some has high alcohol content but sweet and is taken in large quantities.
“For example, the alcohol content for a 350ml [or 1.5 units] bottle of Carlsberg Green is 4.3 percent. But for the same 350ml of the cheap whiskey or gin, alcohol content is 40 percent or 14 units,” she said.
Yet, for men, the recommended alcohol units per week is 21 units and for women it is 14, according to Chunda.
Dubbed ‘Kill me quick’ by imbibers and sellers because it hits you fast, you can get a 50ml bottle for as little as K250 or a 750ml bottle for K1 500, depending on the brand.
Some doctors we talked to said the alcohol content in some cocktails can be as high as 70 percent. And yet the prices of these drinks are usually three products from Europe or South Africa.times cheaper than the original
There is both good and bad news for Malawi on alcohol consumption, according to a survey report ‘Fighting Poverty through Misuse Prevention in Malawi,’ conducted and funded by a Norwegian organisation, Alma released in September 2013.
The good news, the report says, is that drinking men in Malawi consume an average of 8.1 litres per year and female drinkers consume an average of 1.6 litres, which is on the lower side globally.
The bad news is that those who drink in Malawi have a high and risky alcohol consumption.
The report further says the highest consumption among male drinkers is found among youngsters—in the 25-39 age bracket. For women, consumption seems to increase with age and with a peak level around 55 years.
According to records we have seen, last year alone St John of God Hospital in Mzuzu, a facility that treats mentally ill patients, mostly from the Central and Northern regions, attended to 570 people—556 males and 14 females—who presented alcohol-related mental health problems. Out of these, 431 had alcohol induced mental disorders. Of the number, 176 were from Lilongwe and 255 from Mzuzu.
The data also shows that out of 139 who came for alcohol addiction recovery programme, 128 were males and 11 females. From the number, 116 were from Mzuzu while 23 attended rehabilitation in Lilongwe, where the facility runs an alcohol and drug rehabilitation service since last year.
St John of God Hospital programme manager Christopher Mhone observed in an interview yesterday that alcohol has caused myriad of problems in Malawi, including social and economic disintegration.
“Apart from death due to physical disorders caused by complications of drinking, some deaths have been a result of suicide due to mental health dysfunction as a result of alcohol problems,” he said.
Dr. Amos Nyaka, former president of the Society of Medical Doctors (SMD), observed in an interview recently that dangerous impurities in the sub-standard alcohol put the health of consumers at risk.
He explained: “For instance, if the alcohol is contaminated with methanol, it may cause instant death and blindness. The other challenge is that the alcohol content may not be as indicated on the labels, which poses a greater risk to the unsuspecting drinkers.”
Nyaka added that substandard alcohol may cause a number of challenges, including impaired motor functions and higher brain functions as well as organ specific damages like liver, heart and eyes.
He said SMD was worried with underage drinking and urged authorities to move with speed and address the problem Alcohol Policy.by implementing the National
The purpose of the policy, approved in January 2017, is to support the public health-oriented and socio-economic policies in reducing alcohol-attributable harm.
The policy also intends to increase awareness of the effects of alcohol and curb harmful consumption of alcohol, including underage drinking.
Ministry of Health spokesperson Joshua Malango, while admitting the growing problem, said his ministry is not to blame since implementation of the policy is multi-sectoral.
Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) has, however, admitted that there are a lot of substandard alcoholic beverages on the market.
The parastatal’s director general Symon Mandala acknowledged that through its nationwide market surveillance sessions, the regulator is aware that most of the substandard alcohol is smuggled into the country through uncharted routes.
Mandala points out that where standards have been breached they confiscate for destruction, take legal action and suspend or close operations of such businesses.
But when put to him that our findings show that MBS officers did not inspect liquor outlets in Lilongwe last year for spot-tests, the Mandala attributed the failure to police the problem to a fire that gutted part of the MBS laboratory testing facilities, which he said limited their testing efficiency and effectiveness.
He promised an improvement in inspection soon after the bureau procures more and modern testing equipment.
Drug Fight Malawi (DFM), a local non-governmental organisation, has squarely placed the blame on government for sleeping on the job, thereby threatening lives of its citizens.
DFM executive director Nelson Zakeyu, in a telephone interview, regretted the failure to police the import and sale of liquor in the country which he said is putting the lives of people in “a very dangerous situation.”