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Last Updated: Thursday, 31 March, 2005, 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK
Bhutan faces up to alcohol problem

By Geeta Pandey
BBC News, Thimphu

Hospital in Thimphu
Alcoholism relapse rates are high

Alcoholic drinks have traditionally played a significant role in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan.

They are served at all ceremonial and religious occasions, and almost every family brews its own rice-based liquor.

But now health officials say they are concerned about the increasing cases of alcoholism being reported at the national hospital in the capital, Thimphu.

"We acknowledge that alcohol is a problem," says Dr Sangay Thinley, Bhutan's health secretary.

He concedes that alcohol is one of the biggest killers of adults in Bhutan.

'Very lonely'

Dr Thinley's concern is illustrated by the fact that in the psychiatric ward of the Jigme Dorji Wangchuk National Referral Hospital in Thimphu, half of the eight beds are occupied by alcoholics.

We initially put them on medication to help them with withdrawal symptoms
Dr Chencho Dorji

Among them is Gopal. He is 33 years old and he has been drinking for the past 13 years.

A father of two young children, he tells me that he has come to the hospital on his own.

"I told myself I will stop drinking. That's why I came here," he said.

He tells me that when he came to the hospital, he cried.

"I keep thinking of my family. I miss them. I feel very lonely here."

Disco in Thimphu
Thimphu's more vibrant nightlife has added to the consumption

Looking after Gopal is Dr Chencho Dorji, Bhutan's first and only psychiatrist. He tells me Gopal's liver is seriously damaged because of drinking.

Before Dr Dorji came along, no records were kept for mental disorder in Bhutan.

Today, Dr Dorji counsels patients suffering from depression, anxiety, epilepsy, and psychosis, but he says alcohol-dependence is the most common problem in Bhutan.

It is also the number one cause of car accidents.

In the past three years, Dr Dorji has seen more than 1,500 patients, and at least 10% of them have been alcoholics.

He says 30% of deaths in all hospital wards are due to alcoholism.

Officials say the number of alcoholics in Bhutan is growing by the day.

Drinking is widely accepted by Bhutanese society, and liquor is served to celebrate the birth of children, weddings and other social functions.

The widespread availability of alcohol and growing economic prosperity have made matters worse.

Pub-hopping in Thimphu

In Thimphu, trendy bars and pubs have mushroomed.

They are popular with young city-dwellers who drop by most evenings for a drink after work.

Dr Chencho Dorji and Gopal (with his back to the camera)
Dr Chencho Dorji [R] with patient Gopal. Recovery rates are slow

During a night of pub-hopping in Thimphu, I saw most places choc-a-bloc with young men and women.

Alcohol swigging, swirling cigarette smoke and uninhibited laughter. In one, a few couples were dancing to loud music.

The health secretary, Dr Thinley, says the government is working on awareness campaigns to encourage people to drink in moderation, and also keep a check on the liquor brewed from rice at home.

The latter, he says, makes it impossible to estimate the amount of liquor being consumed.

Dr Dorji says the number of alcoholics he sees is tiny compared to the number who are not been treated in the wider community.

"The problem with alcoholics is that most of them don't like to come on their own. They come only if they develop other problems - sometimes they get violent or develop a medical condition. And then they're forced to come by their family members."

Dr Dorji says the road to recovery is long and slow.

"We initially put them on medication to help them with withdrawal symptoms. And once they're calm and quiet, then gradually we taper off the medicines and follow it up with psychological rehabilitation."

But, he says, the relapse rate is high too - very few succeed in giving up alcohol.

As in other South Asian societies, there is a lot of stigma in Bhutanese society attached to seeking psychiatric help.

Even in one of the world's most cut-off countries, the perils of alcoholism cannot be avoided.

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