The recent review and analysis of 50 substance abuse studies paints a bleak picture for poor children in 22 impoverished countries.
The research shows that for poor children who live on the street, substance abuse is very common and many become lifetime addicts. This is creating a huge problem for their health and the public health in general. The studies also indicate that substance abuse is preventing most of these children from finding employment or joining in with society.
"The most important conclusion to draw from this large number of studies is not only is substance abuse by street children highly prevalent in low-income countries; it is largely ignored," said Paula Braitstein, Ph.D., associate research professor of medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine and a Regenstrief Institute affiliated scientist. "These children are often malnourished, have significant health problems and lack education. This poses a massive public health problem, in terms of their future need for health care as well as potential for future productivity and/or re-integration back into society for countries with limited resources."
The review of the 50 studies, which was published by the journal Addiction, was led by Dr Braitstein. The findings highlight that the problem is becomes worse in poorer countries.
According to Dr Braitstein, the children prefer inhalants because they are cheap, easy to find and often sold legally.
The consequences of inhalants can are costly and severe. Medical research has linked inhalants to neurological impairments and psychological and physical dependence. Other problems include sudden death and cardiac arrhythmia.
While this may seem like a problem localised to poorer countries, the wider effects could also affect wealthier countries. With millions of budding addicts, there is a fertile breeding ground for addiction. That is a prime opportunity for drug cartels to expand their reach and produce cheaper highs.
With a ready supply of new users, illicit drugs will find new markets and a vast source of funding.
"As a result of this review, we learned that we don't really know enough about what causes street children to start and stop using drugs. We also found that many studies of street children focus on boys, so we have even less information about girls' drug use," Dr Braitstein said. "Although we know that some street children exchange sex for drugs or have sex while under the influence of drugs, little else is known about the link between drug use and risky sex behaviour. There are several critical gaps in our knowledge that we need to fill."