Waragi in sachets is industrially distilled alcohol packed in sachets. In May last year, at least 18 people died of excessive consumption of waragi in Moroto District, while in 2010, 20 people died in various parts of Kabale District after they allegedly consumed contaminated waragi. Also, three people died at Kamukira Health Centre IV while three others were admitted at Rugarama Hospital after turning blind.
Mustapha Mulonda, a Congolese national, started drinking waragi in sachets when he arrived in Uganda in 2006. At that time, he was studying an accounting course at Bugema University. Mulonda says he found this waragi cheaper than the spirits he had been taking in DR Congo. The spirit in the sachet was his new found love, but 13 years later, he suffered liver damage and in 2014, he started suffering vision loss.
“A friend and drinking buddy also suffered liver failure and another had to stop studying and go back to Tanzania,” he says. Mulonda’s liver condition explains why members of Parliament are increasing pressure on Amelia Kyabambadde, the Trade, Industry and Cooperative minister to ban waragi in sachets.
Dr David Kalema of Hope and Beyond, a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics in Mengo, says sachet waragi is the most dangerous because it has 40 per cent alcoholic content. The higher the content of alcohol, the more disastrous it becomes.
The drinks are packaged in sachets sometimes as small as 100 millilitres and cost as little as Shs500 making them accessible to everyone, including children. However, consuming sachet waragi in excess amounts could have far reaching consequences on your health.
From Mulonda’s experience, Dr Kalema says: “Alcohol is the leading cause of cancer of the liver and stomach. This is majorly because the liver plays a central part in metabolism by separating nutrients and acids. However, alcohol is an acid which adds an extra load to the liver leading to liver failure.”
He adds that sexually, men who consume alcohol are at risk of impotence and low libido. And in pregnant women, it affects the unborn baby, sometimes leading to miscarriages or low birth weight and cognitive problems.
According to Carol Mulyowa, a counsellor, alcohol affects a person’s mental health because it is a sedative.
“Many people who drink alcohol live a depressed life because they use it as an escape route. And that is how it becomes addictive,” she says.
Family breakdown, domestic violence, social disorders such as strikes in schools are some of the problems encountered as a result of alcohol abuse.
“Young people are more prone to the effects of alcohol because they still have developing brains. When they take alcohol, they are likely to have mental disorders,” Dr Kalema says.
In a recently published research by Ochan Otim et al, titled: ‘Assessing the health risks of consuming sachet alcohol in Acholi, Uganda,’ More than 20 harmful chemicals that lead to a slow and protracted death were found in sachet waragi. Some of the chemicals include zinc, copper, alluminium, arsenic, cobalt, selenium, nickel, thallium and cobalt.
In the research, chemicals known as heavy metals were found in a sample of at least 17 waragi spirits from different manufacturers in Uganda.
Otim’s research also gives a glimpse of how harmful these chemicals are to the body. “All these heavy metals were detected in the sachet alcohol samples which lends some empirical credibility to the claim that the cheaply available alcohol is a major factor in the increasing mortality rate among males,” the research states.
The chemical is mainly used in increasing the ethanol content in distilled waragi. When exposed to the body, it is associated with the risk of cognitive impairment such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
It is used in waragi manufacture to give it a sparkly and clear look and can be found in vessels made from poor quality copper in the distillation process.
If absorbed in the body system, it is known to cause hypertension. It is also known to accumulate in the liver, kidney, and skin resulting into swelling of the liver and kidney failure. It is also associated with high rates of cancer of the skin, lung and the bladder.
Used in the past to stabilise froth formation in beer, it is a known chemical that is less harmful to the body and can increase red blood cells. However, if taken in large amounts, it causes the weakening of the heart muscles leading to as high as 50 per cent mortality in those consuming large volumes of cobalt contaminated drinks.
A toxic element previously used as household rodent killer, is used by electronics, glass and drugs factories. It damages the nervous system and heart, causing death.
A rare metal on earth’s surface, and a toxic element used in nickel-plating, and as component of batteries and some alloys. It bio accumulates in cells, soft tissues, lungs and the bones. It mainly affects the respiratory system and could result into reduced lung function, nasal sinus and bronchitis.
An essential element, is associated with several adverse health effects in humans such as hepatotoxicity (chemical driven liver damage and injury), gastrointestinal disturbances resulting into constipation, nausea and vomiting; loss of nail and hair, and dermatitis and swelling of body parts such as the human face.
Dr Brian Musinguzi at Total medical Centre in Luzira shares tips on how such chemicals can be eliminated from the body system.
Change in diet and use of food supplements, which helps in breaking down the chemicals into smaller particles that can be removed from the body system through urine, sweat and faecal matter.
Use of herbs, especially those which possess anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties for instance, ginger and cinnamon.
Using activated charcoal, which works by eliminating metals or toxins via absorption. This is also mainly used for treating poisons in the body. One can also opt for the Asian method commonly known as Triphala- a traditional herbal formulation made from dried fruits, which contain strong antioxidants that can help eliminate chemicals. Chelation therapy involves the administration of chelation agents for instance EDTA, an acid, used to remove metals from the body system by binding chemical molecules and allowing them to be dissolved and excreted in urine.
Stages of alcohol addiction
According Dr David Kalema at Hope and Beyond, a rehabilitation centre for alcoholics in Mengo, consuming waragi begins as a habit more for socialising and experimentation. Then, someone goes into the dependency stage where they begin to depend on alcohol for work and other physical activities.
When one gets addicted, the effects start becoming visible such as coming late for work, skipping meals to drink and spending long hours while drinking. Here, triggers such as the smell of alcohol or a television advert on alcohol will trigger a person’s thought leading to action.
The last stage is withdrawal. This is when a person feels the impact of alcohol but cannot do without it. For instance, any withdrawal from alcohol will result into occasional shaking of the hands and legs, stomach ache and mood swings. Alcohol at this stage is looked at as medicine for latter effects mentioned.
Why sachet waragi?
Carol Mulyowa, a counsellor, says the main problem is peer pressure from friends, especially in schools. She notes that many want to fit in. Another major factor for drinking is curiosity arising from media influence, especially on television adverts.
Dr David Kalema also attributes consumption of waragi in satchets to it being cheap, readily available and aggressive marketing by the producers. “Most of the people consuming this waragi are low income earners and unemployed. And since alcohol is a sedative, many are using it to escape reality,” he says.