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Unlicensed rehab clinics prey on Egypt's most vulnerable citizens

A large number of unlicensed addiction treatment centers in Egypt are luring desperate clients by promising to treat them in as little as 10 days.

Centers claiming to offer treatment for drug addiction have been popping up in Egypt, particularly over the last two months. The staff at these places are neither doctors nor specialists and pretend to be qualified even though they are unlicensed. Their work is a clear violation of Egyptian law, by which any medical facility must be under the supervision of a licensed physician.

These centers have been widely visited by addicts seeking treatment away from the prying eyes of their families and communities. In a bid to avoid society’s judgment, they opt for such private treatment centers.

Egyptians perceive addiction as extremely immoral and avoid addicts, even those seeking psychiatric treatment. This perception is a product of Egyptian culture and religion, which prohibit drug use.

These centers use people who have recovered from drug addiction to lure drug-addicted clients and convince them of the center’s ability to heal them better than the specialists working within psychiatric hospitals licensed by the Ministry of Health.

These centers profit from the housing fees billed to their clients, who are asked to stay on site for several nights. The fees vary from one center to another, and depending on the region, can be anywhere from 150 Egyptian pounds ($19) up to 400 pounds ($51) per night. The centers can be found in the governorates of Cairo and Giza, the largest in Egypt, in the neighborhoods of Al-Mokattam and Al-Ahram Gardens.

Mostafa Magdi, an addict who visited an unlicensed addiction center in Al-Ahram Gardens, could not hold still while speaking about the money he paid without being cured, as his income is very low.

Magdi told Al-Monitor about going to the "Tarik al-Moustakbal” (“Path to the Future”) center. He said, “Many friends of mine recommended this center, given its high treatment efficiency within a few days. This is what encouraged me to go there, especially considering that it is far from my family and the circle of people I know. I had refused to visit many mental health centers before for fear of scandals.”

He added, “As soon as I stepped into the center, I came across people who started telling me that they had once been addicted and convinced me that they were able to heal me, provided that I live with them for 10 days in return for 150 pounds per night. When I approved, they took all my belongings, including my mobile phone, and prevented me from contacting my family and friends.”

The detention rooms in the center are reinforced and protected by metal doors to prevent addicts from escaping. There are strict times for eating and sleeping, while contact with the outer world is completely forbidden, according to Magdi.

Al-Monitor spoke to Dr. Saber Ghoneim, the head of Central Administration for Non-Governmental Therapeutic Institutions. He told Al-Monitor that the people running such centers use sedative pills, intravenous injections and anesthetic drugs after forcibly tying patients up with ropes to calm them down and quiet their cries. All of this happens with no medical supervision, rehabilitation or psychological treatment.

Magdi told Al-Monitor, “I paid 1,500 Egyptian pounds [$191], and my delusional therapeutic journey finally came to an end at that center. I left it after I had stopped using drugs for the 10 days I spent there. Upon my return, I was so tired that I stayed home for several days, tired from the effects of sedatives that former addicts gave to me.”

He added, “But the surprise was that as soon as I got out of the house, I found myself in serious need to do drugs, not to mention the fatigue in my nervous system and joints. The injections at the center made my pain worse.”

In June 2015, the Ministry of Health had ordered the closure of 12 unlicensed addiction centers in the governorates of Cairo and Giza for violating laws regulating medical facilities.

Such unlicensed centers do not only cater to male addicts, and there are some specifically established for the treatment of women and girls. These places attract desperate parents, who seek to avoid scandals and hope such centers can help their daughters heal.

Faten, the mother of one of the women who sought treatment at Al-Amal Center in Al-Mokattam, told Al-Monitor, “I heard a lot about those centers, and I visited them after my only daughter got addicted to drugs. She was taking heroin with her colleagues at university, but I later discovered that these centers were inhumane and used illegal methods to treat patients, including sticks to beat and torture them in detention rooms.”

Following three nights at the center, which cost her 900 pounds ($114), Faten decided to take her daughter out and go to a private doctor, fearing that her daughter would grow depressed or die. Faten had agreed to leave her daughter at the center, where, as in the facility for male patients, she was not allowed to see her parents.

At an unlicensed addiction treatment center in the Al-Mokattam region, one addict died after being tortured.

Ghoneim acknowledged the difficulty of containing and eliminating these centers, which are often established within apartments in the middle of popular neighborhoods. Monitoring them is impossible without the cooperation of citizens, who are encouraged to report them.

Ghoneim told Al-Monitor, “These centers are indeed widespread in the governorates of the republic. They exploit the needs of patients and their desire to be secretly treated for addiction, which is unfortunately perceived as a disgrace.” He pointed out that the administration had made many efforts in the past that led to the elimination of some of them.

“Law No. 153 [2004] specifies the health requirements for centers, clinics and hospitals, including private centers. The law stipulates that such centers should be established in independent housing units and should be provided with rooms that have good lighting and ventilation and be fully equipped. … Also, the director and owner of the center must, by law, be doctors,” Ghoneim said.

He added, “In addiction treatment and psychiatry centers, there should be safety requirements, such as — among others  iron bars for windows, the absence of sharp objects that patients can use to harm themselves, a lack of electrical wires or cords that patients can choke themselves with. In the case of electroconvulsive therapy, the center should offer an intensive care room for emergencies.”

The Egyptian Ministry of Health is still relying on traditional means to address the problem. Until it switches focus to devising novel ways to treat addiction and uses resources such as the media, nothing much can be expected to change.

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