Attending a fitness centre to build up muscles is becoming more popular in cities like Diwaniya. And so are dietary supplements and hormonal treatments for the body builders. But these are unregulated and their use
Mohammed Hamza will never forget the day they cut off his hands. He is a young man, in his 20s, living in the central Iraqi city of Diwaniya and he was admitted to a local hospital after his hands became infected.
They were infected because for six months Hamza had been injecting the muscles of his hands with a cocktail of hormones that were supposed to help him bulk up during body building sessions at his local gym.
After discovering the infection, the doctor who treated him said he had no other option but to amputate the young man’s hands, in order to stop the infection spreading and killing him.
Hamza had joined one of the local sports clubs in Diwaniya at his girlfriend’s request – he was slim and she wanted him to build up his body with weight training and exercise. For six months, Hamza’s trainer at the gym had him inject a mixture of what are known as pro-hormones, which are mostly legal hormonal compounds that athletes use to increase muscle mass or reduce body fat. Hamza was injecting a combination of drugs in amounts of up to four CCs (4 millilitres) daily.
“Six months later, I felt pain, I saw cracks, ulcers and inflammation in the muscles,” Hamza says. “My doctor decided to cut off my hands as the quickest way to stop the infection.” Having said this, Hamza began crying before telling how after his hands were amputated, nobody ever came to see him and he felt horribly lonely.
Statistics indicate that there are between 20 and 30 cases of death or disability annually due to the misuse of the kinds of dietary supplements sold at gyms and sports centres.
Diwaniya has about 18 gyms or fitness centres and numbers are growing, as are the numbers of gym members using the dietary supplements, like pro-hormones. Most of the hormone treatments appear to enter the country illicitly and they are not supervised at all by the Iraqi government.
According to Riyad Shuaib Daham, of the Inspections and Complaints department of Diwaniya’s Health Department, there have been several deaths due to misuse of these kinds of drugs. Daham even lives in the same neighbourhood as one 17-year-old who died as a result of an overdose of hormones. An autopsy found that irregular usage of hormones and dietary supplements recommended to the youth by his trainer, had caused kidney failure.
“His death was big shock to all those who live in this neighbourhood,” Daham reports. “Everybody loved him.”
The authorities have tried to do something about the amount of supplements available in the city. “Inspection committees were created by the Diwaniya department of health,” Daham reports. “And these make unannounced monthly visits to gyms and sports centre to try to put an end to this phenomenon.”
These measures have seen charges brought against the owners of three fitness centres. Two of the gym owners were imprisoned for a year and the third paid a fine.
“The biggest problem is that owners don’t need a license to start their businesses,” Daham explains. “They only need a license from a federation of body builders.”
And Diwaniya’s fitness centres are brimming with colourful cans and packages displayed in the reception or administration areas and usually prescribed by trainers and fitness coaches working there – without any real knowledge of the side effects or dangers.
One gym owner, Ali Hussein, says that the majority of the gym owners buy the supplements from wholesalers in the Sanq market in Baghdad. “Whereas I get them direct from the supplier,” Hussein added.
Prices vary according to the brand and the origin of the product, Hussein explains. Dietary supplements cost between US$25 and US$200 whereas hormonal treatments range from US$40 to US$150 for a bottle containing around 10 millilitres.
Besides potential health risks, fitness-obsessed Iraqis have also started to feel some of the other side effects. These include everything from excess hair to acne, bad breath, decreased libido and increased secondary feminine characteristics, such as larger breasts.
Kareem Anad, for instance, ended up travelling to India to get rid of excess hair that started growing after using hormones his trainer told him to take. His coach called the hormone supplement “Gorilla” and Westerners would know it as oxymetholone, an oral anabolic that used to be called the "gorilla" steroid by bodybuilders in the 1980\'s.
“I paid more than US$30,000 to go to India and get treated,” Anad says. “This is a lesson I will never forget. I now tell everyone not to use hormonal supplements like these.”
“Big muscles and an attractive physique are desired by many young people, especially teenagers,” Yahya Faleh, the head of sports medicine in Diwaniya told NIQASH. “Unfortunately, this means it has become a good living for those selling supplements allowing them to earn a lot of money. And some people have made themselves doctors simply because there’s a lack of supervision and a lack of protection for athletes.”