Health experts in Uganda have warned the spread of underage drinking among the country’s children is a time bomb that could cause lasting damage to a generation.
Most alcoholic drinks in the east African country are marked with warnings such as 'Strictly not for sale to persons under 18 years', but experts say there are now growing numbers of child alcoholics.
Thirty per cent of patients checking the National Care Centre, a rehab unit based in Nsambya, are aged under 18, a Ugandan newspaper revealed on Sunday. And among the rest of those patients in the centre, in the capital, Kampala, 60 per cent suffering from alcohol addiction started drinking between the age of 16 and 18.
Alcohol affects underage drinkers more than adults because their brain is not yet fully developed, said Dr Paul Semugoma of the International Medical Centre. “Underage consumption of alcohol directly damages brains, causing epilepsy and convulsions, poor memory where one cannot concentrate on anything and mental confusion,” he told the Daily Monitor newspaper.
“When this sets in, they start behaving uncontrollably and violently, can easily fight or undress in public, which in turn puts them at the risk of injury. Some of them even die because they cannot distinguish between the safe and unsafe types of alcohol,” Dr Semugoma, added.
When children start drinking alcohol at a young age, their poor performance at school can make it harder for them to find work, said Dr Semugoma. Some start falling out with their families because of their drinking habits and in the end, they run away and become street kids.
“Drinking is not such a big issue, we do it whenever,” said James, Frank, and Justus, high school pupils in Kampala. The three boys are aged between 16 and 17. O level student James told the paper “It was like something new I was just trying out,” he says. “We escaped from school and used to come here to Kampala and dance in the night. It’s there that I started drinking.”
The three of them sleep in a hostel near their school and James says they easily buy the beer and drink it in their bedrooms. “I have never been stopped from buying beer because I am below 18,” he said.
“I am not an alcoholic. I limit what I drink. I am not like one of those guys who drink and forget that there is tomorrow,” says Frank.