PAHO launches project to improve substance use disorder policies in Latin America and the Caribbean

Support group

Globally, only one in eight persons who need treatment for a substance use disorder receives it.

Washington, D.C., December 27 2021 (PAHO) – A new project by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) will provide technical support to Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guyana, Jamaica and Panama to improve national capacity to develop and implement health and social responses for substance-use related problems.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2021 World Drug Report, 83 million persons in the Americas used controlled drugs in 2018, mainly cannabis, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, and other stimulants.  Eighty-seven million are projected to use them in 2030. This could increase the burden associated with substance use disorders on health systems in the region, which is disproportionately concentrated in lower- and middle-income countries.

The project, entitled Universal Health Care for Substance Use Disorders in Latin America and the Caribbean, will run for 18 months, and focus on training health and social workers. “The idea is to build country capacity to formulate, implement, and evaluate policies and programs to address substance use problems using a public health approach,” PAHO Substance Use Advisor, Dr. Luis Alfonzo, said.

Training activities will center around improving health and social workers’ abilities to screen for substance use disorders, implement early interventions, better manage at-risk populations, and formulate health policies. It will also work to improve the collaboration between national health and drug control agencies.  As trainings will be conducted virtually, other countries of the region will also indirectly benefit from it.

Persons who suffer from substance use disorders often face stigma, social isolation, and premature death. However, UNODC estimates that, globally, only one in every eight people who require treatment for a substance use disorder is able to receive it.

The pandemic exacerbates the pressure on persons with substance use disorders, who in turn also face higher risk of poor outcomes related to COVD-19. “There is a relationship between substance use disorders and the likelihood of developing complications from COVID-19, as a result of the conditions of vulnerability in which many such people live,” Dr. Renato Oliveira e Souza, Unit Chief for Mental Health and Substance Use, said.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the project is aligned with the PAHO Strategy and Plan of Action on Substance Use and Public Health, which promotes “demand reduction initiatives that cover prevention, early intervention, treatment, care, recovery, rehabilitation and social reintegration measures, as well as initiatives and measures aimed at minimizing the adverse consequences of drug abuse in the social and public health fields.”

The project also supports PAHO’s work to strengthen public health approaches to address substance use problems and will foster greater collaboration between PAHO and other relevant partners, such as the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States, UNODC, the Colombo Plan, and the Ibero-American Network of Non-Governmental Organizations Working on Drug Dependence (RIOD).