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The coronavirus pandemic is forcing support groups for millions of addicts around the world to shut, leaving many to struggle alone at a time of isolation and anxiety, which is increasing their risk of relapse.

About 283 million people around the world suffer from alcohol-use disorders and 3 million a year die from alcohol abuse, estimates the World Health Organization. Some 35 million people have drug-use disorders.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is one of the largest networks of support groups to help people quit drinking. It is in 180 countries and has a membership of more than 2 million. With the usual face-to-face meetings now being banned, many groups now meet online, and rely on their fast internet or smartphones for access.

Keith Humphreys, a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University, said the risk of relapse was higher when people were alone and inactive.

“If I go to the meeting, my health’s at risk, but if I don’t go to the meeting, my health’s at risk for a different reason,” he said.

In the UK, online services are ramping up, although a small number of in-person events are still on for services such as needle exchanges.

“It’s a crisis within a crisis,” said Matthew Thomas, a communications consultant for the British charity Action on Addiction and a recovering addict.

He knew of two people who had relapsed in recent days after struggling without face-to-face meetings.

“Addiction is disease of isolation”, he said. “Community is one of the ways that people can recover from addiction, and that community has been really seriously compromised.”

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