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Rehab centers face obstacles

By Wang Hongyi and Zhou Wenting in Shanghai (China Daily)

08:19, June 26, 2013

Hospitals seek government aid so they can help addicts get sober

On June 20, Chen Fuda and his colleagues celebrated the 10th anniversary of his hospital. Jie, the Chinese character that means quit or stop, was printed large in bold black on the back of their white T-shirts, serving as a reminder the Shanghai Huashi Drug Recovery Hospital is no ordinary medical center.

Huashi is the only private drug recovery hospital in Shanghai, to which drug abusers are encouraged to go voluntarily, as opposed to compulsory detoxification in designated hospitals that cooperate with public security departments.

Over the past decade, more than 25,700 drug addicts have been treated at Huashi. In follow-ups on 2,236 patients in 2011, the drug-free rate after two years was 18.9 percent, a good result in the country's drug rehabilitation work. There are no exact figures on a national scale.

Despite such good results, Chen, who is president of the hospital, is concerned with Huashi's future.

"Actually, we have many difficulties," Chen told China Daily.

One of the most obvious problems is a lack of patients. The hospital has 50 beds, but only about 30 percent were in use this year. In contrast, the number of patients often exceeded its capacity several years ago.

Chen said that is not because there are less people needing treatment, but because of a change in the type of drugs being taken.

Chen said before 2008, the majority of Huashi's patients were addicted to traditional drugs such as heroin.

"The problem is the number of drug users is not declining," he said. "On the contrary, more drug users have turned to new drugs, such as methamphetamine, which are even harder to abstain from."

"The symptoms of new drugs' appear indistinguishable in the initial stage and aggravate much later than traditional drugs," said Qian Yixian, a doctor at Huashi.

The initial effects of methamphetamine addiction include yawning, a runny nose and fatigue - symptoms few users associate with the drugs. Once the effects exacerbate to become more noticeable, the user's central nervous system has already eroded and they cannot realize they are heavily addicted, doctors said.

In Shanghai, around 67,000 people are registered drug users, a number that has risen at an annual rate of 10 percent over the past five years. Nearly 70 percent of the drug users are local residents, according to Shanghai police.

In a four-month campaign to crack down on drug abuse that began in January, Shanghai police identified more than 1,500 drug cases and seized drugs weighing a total of 350 kg.

"Synthetic drugs account for around 80 percent of the seized drugs, and heroin takes up 5 percent," said Wang Jun, office director of the Shanghai Anti-drug Committee.

Police said when they detain someone for taking drugs, they test him or her to see if they are addicted. Addicts are sent for compulsory treatment to drug rehabilitation centers under the public security bureau.

In the first five months of this year, nearly 8,300 drug users were investigated in Shanghai.

Another problem for Chen is that drug rehab in private hospitals is not covered by public medical insurance. Patients have to pay at least 1,500 yuan ($244) before they can begin the 10-day treatment, but that amount is often out of the reach of impoverished drug users.

Unlike other private hospitals, laws also forbid drug rehab centers from advertising their services. Thus, potential patients only learn of them through word of mouth, Chen said.

"For a long time, private drug rehabilitation hospitals did not receive the same treatment as public hospitals, which posed many obstacles for the development of private facilities," said Li Xiaodong, a medical expert who is also president of Zhuhai Jinding Drug Rehabilitation Center in Guangdong province.

Over the past few years, many private drug rehab centers have closed, with the number in Wuhan, Hubei province, shrinking from 28 to less than 10.

"These private medical bodies have actually done a very good job in helping drug abusers back into society," Li said. "The government should consider more ways to help them to develop."

For Chen, the running cost of his hospital with 37 staff members is around 2 million yuan each year, but it has run at a loss most years.

"Our staff all receive salaries at the minimum level (1,620 yuan per month) set by the city government," Chen said. "Almost no doctor wants to work here for the meager salary. In the past, most of the doctors were young people, but now all we could recruit are doctors who work after retirement. In that case the low salary would not matter much as they have retirement pensions."

Chen is seeking more support from the government, but is still unsure of the outcome.

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