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Sunday October 30, 2011

Sniffing out a fatal habit

Inhalant abuse, including glue sniffing, has been a long-standing problem in Malaysia with no clear solution in sight.

Cheap. Accessible. Potentially fatal.

Glue is commonly used to stick things together or repair tyres but it can also be misused by an inhalant abuser to get high.

Medical experts and the National Anti-Drugs Agency have warned that glue sniffing can cause medical complications such as brain damage and cognitive problems.

In some cases, it can also prove fatal as it can result in sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS), which can occur when an abuser is surprised or startled while sniffing. An especially exciting or frightening hallucination could also trigger SSDS.

The problem of glue sniffing in Malaysia continues to raise alarm bells, with calls for legislation to be drawn up. Currently, there are no laws to address the problem. Glue is also cheap and readily accessible, making it easy for younger Malaysians to purchase.

Dangerous side effects

Individuals who are glue sniffers can, for the most part, exhibit psychological complications including hallucinations and delusions.

It can prove fatal, warns Universiti Malaya Centre for Addiction Science chief coordinator Dr Rusdi Abd Rashid, if the person suffocates during the act of sniffing glue from a plastic bag.

He adds that violent behaviour can also develop from prolonged use of inhalants such as glue, and brain damage is also a possibility.

“Sometimes, they can hear voices or see things and become paranoid,” he says.

“It can affect a brain that is still growing and one's memory. The onset of the effects can happen very fast.”

Dr Rusdi, who is also a consultant psychiatrist at University Malaya Medical Centre, says glue sniffing can also negatively affect one's social life and performance in school.

While there is no medication to treat glue sniffing or inhalant abuse, counselling and prevention with the necessary information could help curb the problem, he says.

And since there is no existing law to address the problem, Dr Rusdi says patients, some as young as eight years old, are brought in to the centre because of other complications and are then referred to the department.

The complications include depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Who are they?

Glue sniffers are normally located in bigger towns and are most likely to be in the younger age group.

National Anti-Drugs Agency deputy director-general (operation) Prof Dr Mahmood Nazar Mohamed says that while only a few studies have been carried out, it has been found through site visits and non-governmental organisations that glue sniffing is prevalent in locations like Penang, Johor Baru, Kota Baru, Kota Kinabalu and Kuching.

There are also cases of glue sniffing among the children of immigrants in Pulau Gaya, Sabah.

“In Kuala Lumpur, we found them in areas like Bukit Bintang,” he says.

Glue is still legal. There is no control over the sale and its access is very wide. —PROF DR MAHMOOD NAZAR MOHAMED

“This problem is not like drug use where one can find them easily. But children who get help early can be prevented from moving on to the next level of drugs like syabu.”

He describes the problem as an “emerging” one which has “clear and present danger”.

“Glue is still legal. There is no control over the sale and its access is very wide,” he adds.

Psychosocial treatment like counselling, he says, can be obtained from the agency's 1Malaysia Cure and Care (C&C) Clinics.

So far, there have been 11 cases of inhalant abuse in Sungai Besi, one of its seven clinics.

The centre accepts walk-in and voluntary clients. It designs programmes, which are free, for various kinds of drug abuse.

These range from one to three months for inpatient treatment and follow-up is provided.

The agency also holds awareness talks for schoolchildren.

Prof Dr Mahmood adds that besides glue, there are about 70 other kinds of inhalants, including petrol and thinner, that could be abused.

Malaysian Crime Prevention Foundation (MCPF) vice-chairman Tan Sri Lee Lam Thye has called for legislation to curb glue sniffing.

“Inhalants are not included under the Dangerous Drugs Act. Glue sniffing is a dangerous problem,” he says, adding that the lack of legislation had left authorities like the police unable to do anything, such as making arrests.

MCPF, Lee says, can play a role by carrying out targeted awareness talks on the dangers of glue sniffing.

A recent study by Universiti Malaysia Sarawak on inhalant abuse among 127 children in the Kuching district found that the majority (96%) were males, 64.6% were former inhalant abusers and the rest were still “active” abusers.

It also found that some 40.9% were aged between 16 and 20 followed by those aged from 26 to 30 (22.8%) while 3.1% were aged between 10 and 15. The majority were inhalant abusers for two years, and one had been on the habit for 20 years.

Inhalant abusers prefer public places such as back alleys, public gardens and empty buildings, the study found.

The study also showed some 44% chose to do it at night while another 22% preferred evenings after work or school.

The majority inhale through their nose (73.4%) a technique also known as “huffing” while 21% used both their nose and mouth, results of the study showed.

Most went for rubber cement gum and bought their supply from grocery, vehicle repair and hardware shops.

The study also found that the activity is normally carried out in groups (79%) as it was more exciting and they could join their friends' “high” experience.

They also prefer a group setting as they can “look out” for each other in case of dangerous “high” experiences. It was also more affordable when in groups.

When they start using inhalants, the study found, they feel nauseous, suffer headaches and weakness in the limbs, become unconscious and have difficulty breathing, among others.

According to the study, this does not deter them from reaching their “high” and they are normally successful in controlling their hallucinations within a week or a month, depending on frequency of usage.

The study also found that inhalant abusers normally focused on being a popular comic character with superpowers or indulge in sexual fantasies.

Related Stories:
Inhalant abuse laws under way
A son's habit, a father's anguish

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