KEMRI backtracks on khat; says bad for mental health


By Gatonye Gathura

Scientists at Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) have said miraa is bad for mental health barely two years after they had absolved the herb from any negative health effects.

In 2017 KEMRI researchers had given khat a clean bill of health saying it had no negative effects on oral, sexual or mental health.

The scientists presenting during the annual KEMRI scientific conference had cited data collected from 831 residents of Meru and Embu counties.

The study funded by the government to the tune of Sh38 million had been welcomed in Embu and Meru as a possible tool to negotiate against miraa export bans to Europe.

But using the same data and publishing the study in a scientific journal for the first time, the researchers have changed tune and say indeed miraa is bad for mental health.

“Psychotic symptoms were significantly elevated in khat users in the study population,” said the study published on 7th May 2019 in the journal BMC Psychiatry.

Chewing miraa, the report says was significantly associated with reported strange experiences and hallucination; two symptoms indicative of mental problems.

Of the 831 study participants, 306 or about 37 per cent were found to chew miraa with more than half being men.

About 14 per cent of children aged 10-17 years were also found to chew miraa. This is described as worrisome because early initiation of substance use is linked to increased risk of drug-related diseases.

The study participants were also screened for use of other substances such as alcohol and tobacco. The study reports a link between chewing miraa and symptoms indicative of mental problems that were independent of alcohol and or tobacco.

However, Dr Evans Amukoye, Deputy Director Kemri, says there was no contradiction in the two positions presented by their researchers.

He said in both cases, an association of mental illness and use of khat was found but when controlled for alcohol and other drug use the link was not significant.

In the published report the authors are specific that when they considered other factors such as age, sex use of tobacco and alcohol, khat users were likely to report strange experiences and hallucinations.

“Controlling for alcohol and tobacco use we found psychotic symptoms of hallucinations and strange experiences to be significantly elevated in khat users compared to non-users in this study population,” concludes the study.

The authors suggest that more studies be carried out using different designs to see if similar findings are replicated.

The study conclusions are a stark opposite of a project brief posted on the online platform Researchgate by Prof Charles Mbakaya senior investigator in the study. In the brief, he is categorical that khat does not cause negative health effects on users.

In the postings Prof Mbakaya says khat chewing was associated with reduced appetite and low obesity, making it a potential product for use in the management of lifestyle diseases.

“From our study outcomes, both men and women reported better sexual performance among persons chewing khat, again contradicting many other findings.”

Prof Mbakaya says from their positive findings countries that have banned the export of Kenya khat should lift such restrictions.

But the newly published study does not mention anything about khat improving sexual performance, appetite or reducing obesity.

“Other people are still analyzing the data on those other aspects of the study and we will be publishing in due cause,” Dr Amukoye told the Standard.

The current report while led by KEMRI scientists included others from Moi University, Eldoret and Rongo University.


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