Kenya: New evidence gathered among Somali refugees living in Eastleigh, Nairobi, shows miraa can lead to serious mental health problems especially when chewed in large amounts.
A report published on Wednesday by the universities of Nairobi, Konstanz of Germany and Minnesota, US, and the Africa Mental Health Foundation provides new evidence that could boost recent calls by Muslim leaders to ban the trade of the product at the Coast.
The researchers in a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Public Health, and which specifically targeted Somali refugees living in Eastleigh, say most of them are heavy consumers of the herb and are showing signs of ill health.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are about 30,000 Somali refugees living in Eastleigh.
“We found severe khat-use patterns with long sessions and high average amount of use,” says the study which was led by Marina Widmann and Abdulkadir Hussein Warsame of Konstanz and Nairobi universities respectively.
The refugees, the researchers say, are already stressed because of their past experiences and most seek for solace in miraa which ends up worsening their mental health.
Three-quarters of the users were found to suffer from various types of khat-induced psychological symptoms such as depression, delusions, confused and disturbed thoughts.
“We also found the existence of an extreme user group with very noxious khat-consumption patterns that include prolonged use for over 24 hours. Almost all these users experienced khat-related psychotic symptoms,” says the report.
Some were found to chew miraa for a continuous period of 28 hours and spending more than a day in unbroken sleep.
The male refugees participating in the study were found to consume an average of 16 retail bundles per week per individual, which was deemed to be significantly high by the researchers.
The highest use of miraa has been documented by the same team in the southern region of Kismayo where militiamen use up 21 retail units per week.
“Our study confirms a high association of psychological symptoms and khat use and further shows that the use of huge amounts of the herb can lead to mental health disorders,” conclude the researchers.
The study builds to increasing local evidence which seems to support the recent classification of miraa as a drug in the UK. The UK has since banned export of miraa in the country which has greatly angered khat farmers and politicians mainly from Meru.
The leaders have interpreted the UK move as a wider campaign by the West to hurt Kenyans but the piling scientific evidence about the leafs’ health hazards could justify the calls for a ban.
During the Eid al-Fitr celebrations on Tuesday, Mombasa Governor Ali Hassan Joho and several political leaders called for a ban on miraa trade in the region.
Changamwe MP Omar Mwinyi and his Jomvu counterpart Badi Twalib asked Governor Joho to ban khat, saying it was destroying lives of youths and marriages.