The UAE is to build the region’s first centre for training health professionals to treat drug addiction.
The National Rehabilitation Centre Training Institute will provide internationally recognised programmes for psychiatrists, social workers and other carers in treating long-term substance abuse.
“The institute has been approved by the government and we are building up the capabilities,” said Dr Hamad Al Ghaferi, director general of the centre.
The announcement was made on the first day of an international conference in Abu Dhabi aimed at improving regional collaboration in the fight against drug abuse.
The three-day event, organised by the World Health Organisation and the centre, will establish a public health framework to ensure a more co-ordinated response.
Dr Al Ghaferi said the new institute would take a lead in providing the best available training for those working in rehabilitation.
He said the courses would be accredited by the UAE and international bodies including the WHO, the International Society of Addiction Medicine and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
“We are looking at methods of training, the manpower required, and possible collaborations with training facilities and institutes inside and outside of the country,” said Dr Ali Al Marzooqi, research director at the centre.
“We’ll only need a few employees to run the administrative side of the institute. We won’t need to increase our budget.”
In recent years, UAE authorities have recognised a growing need to address drug addiction.
In 2016, changes to the law significantly reduced punishment for users, although not for smugglers and suppliers.
Among the new measures was a reduction in the minimum jail sentence for drug users, from four years to two.
The use of illegal narcotics was also downgraded to a misdemeanour and courts were given new powers to send first-time offenders to rehabilitation centres rather than jail.
The NRC Training Institute will be the first of its kind in the Eastern Mediterranean region. A starting date for construction has not been announced but Dr Al Ghaferi said he was confident of a quick start.
“There are many people working in the field but none of them are currently certified through a centralised, formal curriculum,” he said. “I am trying to engage with those people and to provide expert training. We expect everybody from the region to come and learn here.”
Prof Alex Baldacchino, training co-chairman at the International Society of Addiction Medicine, welcomed plans for the institute.
He said there were increasing problems with addiction in the region, including the practice of mixing prescription drugs with illegal narcotics.
Since its creation in 2002, the centre has treated 3,500 addicts, with the youngest being only nine years old.
“This will be an ideal centre from a regional perspective and will receive students from the GCC and other neighbouring countries,” Prof Baldacchino said.
“Bahrain, for example, is struggling to provide centres and training so the institute will be able to support them as they set up on their own.”