4 October 2012

South Africa: Tik Time Bomb

Each year around a thousand young women addicted to crystal methamphetamine, or tik, give birth to so-called tik babies in Cape Town.

"I started smoking [heroine, dagga and tik] while I was 16 years old," said Meggan Adams from the Cape Flats while filling her glass pipe with more of the white tik crystals. She is six-and-a-half-months pregnant with her second child.

"With my first child I was smoking five packets [of tik] a day - one packet just wasn't enough for me," Meggan said. "There were times, after I smoked, that I could feel the child being like hyperactive in my tummy."

Meggan has been living on the streets of Cape Town since she was a child, and despite her pregnancy, prefers to sleep out on the street. According to her, she doesn't like spending time at home and would rather roam around, begging for money to buy food.

"I'm very worried about her on the streets, very worried," said Meggan's mother, Amiena, who often comes to town to meet with her and to get some money from her to help support Meggan's 5 year old son.

A Health-e News documentary investigating the use of tik among pregnant women was produced by Johann Abrahams and will be featured on Special Assignment on Thursday 4 October, SABC 3 at 9 pm.

Alecia (not her real name), another heavily pregnant young woman from Bishop Lavis, also on the Cape Flats, told how she started smoking tik at the age of 18 after seeing her friends do it. "I smoked with them, and ever since then I'm smoking," she said while lighting up a tik pipe. Throughout her pregnancy she was smoking up to three bags of tik a day. Two days after the interview in mid June she gave birth to a baby boy called Clintino.

At the age of only six weeks baby Clintino died of unknown causes. "I don't know what happened," said Alecia. "The Friday he was still okay, but Saturday when I woke up he was blue in the face I miss him a lot every day, every hour."

According to Professor Johan Smith, head of the Neonatal Unit at Tygerberg Hospital in Cape Town, it is estimated that around 200 000 people in the Western Cape use tik, and many of them are pregnant women. Babies born to heavy tik-using mothers may suffer acute symptoms of withdrawal. "These babies are very agitated and irritable, they cry a lot, and they may have seizures," said Smith. Between 500 and 1 000 babies are born to tik-using mothers in the Western Cape each year.

According to Smith, tik reduces the size of the region of the brain essential for learning and memory. "It's a threat to the brain development and the physical health of pregnant mothers, and their children. And it is a threat to the future of our country," said Smith.

Dr Kirsty Donald of the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town conducted a study into the effects of crystal meth on children.

"We followed up a group of neonates whose mothers had reported tik abuse in pregnancy and we looked at their behaviour and developmental outcomes between two and four years of age," Donald explained. "What was very clear from the results is that children who are exposed to methamphetamin definitely have behavioural and certain developmental problems compared to controls who come from the same communities."

According to Nirosha Moolla, a school psychologist who often deals with school-going children exposed to tik before birth, these children are much slower than the others in the class. "They struggle to remember, they struggle to hold on to information, so they can't build on information as they get older. They learn something today, and then a few months down the line they have lost that information because they can't retain it in their memory," said Moolla.

"Every year there are children in my class that cannot cope with the work because they come from grade 1 but cannot read," said Theresa Abrahams, a grade-2 teacher at a school in Eastridge, Mitchells Plain.

"What I picked up recently at many schools, that these learners present with a lot of anger, and it is unprovoked anger," said Faizel Cottle, a learning support advisor. "So there are different symptoms, and it is very closely related to FAS [foetal alcohol syndrome]."

"We are very worried about the scourge of drug abuse on the Cape Flats," said Albert Fritz, Provincial Minister of Social Development for the Western Cape, adding that there are substance abuse working groups actively working on the problem. "Two years ago we had only about four treatment centers in the province. We have now 24 treatment centers, 22 of which are run by NGO's which we support, and two run by us," said Fritz. Despite these successes, he admits that there is a need for more preventative work.

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