Imagine watching a loved one moaning in pain, curled into a fetal ball, pleading for relief. Then imagine that his or her pain could be relieved by an inexpensive drug, but the drug was unavailable.
Each day, about six million terminal cancer patients around the world suffer that fate because they do not have access to morphine, the gold standard of cancer pain control. The World Health Organization has stated that access to pain treatment, including morphine, is an essential human right.
Most suffering because of a lack of morphine is felt in the poorer regions of the globe. About 90 percent of the world's morphine consumption is in countries in North America and Europe, whereas all the globe's low- and middle-income countries combined use a mere 6 percent. In sub-Saharan Africa, which has the world's lowest consumption of morphine and other opioids, 32 of 53 countries have little, if any, access to morphine.
However, this grossly lopsided use of morphine is not about the unequal distribution of wealth. Morphine is easy to produce and costs pennies per dose. But its per-dose profits are also low, which decreases a drug company's incentive to enter low-income markets in the developing world.
If it were just about the money, the solution — subsidized access — would be obvious. However, the issue is complicated by a dizzying array of bureaucratic hurdles, cultural biases and the chilling effect of the international war on drugs, which can be traced back to the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs that standardized international regulation of narcotics. Driven by its lopsided concern over the illicit use of opioids, a class of drugs that includes heroin, the Single Convention drove countless, onerous country-level restrictions on morphine use, for fear that it would be abused.
India offers a glaring example of how such restrictions can have devastating effects on human lives. In a powerful documentary, "The Pain Project," India's leading palliative care specialist, Dr. M. R. Rajagopal, explains that India's narcotic regulatory agencies are so irrationally stringent that in 27 of the country's 28 states doctors simply avoid prescribing morphine for cancer pain, for fear of running afoul of the law.
In the documentary, you see an aged Indian woman with terminal breast cancer lying on a cot and wailing in pain. It's agonizing to watch, but it illustrates the unrelenting soul-searing effects of untreated cancer pain.
Under mounting pressure, India recently eased some restrictions on the medical use of morphine and consolidated the licensing process from four or five agencies into a single authority. While a step forward, the new amendment doesn't address many harsh regulations that dissuade doctors from freely prescribing morphine. Adding to the regulatory roadblocks, India's health care delivery system is woefully fragmented and understaffed. And India is just one, albeit very large, country — the same story can be found across the developing world.
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Several organizations, such as Global Access to Pain Relief Initiative, Hospice Without Borders and Human Rights Watch, are devoted to easing the global crisis of untreated cancer pain, but it is a Sisyphean undertaking for a handful of cash-strapped nongovernmental organizations. Still, by partnering with international organizations and developing innovative delivery systems, certain resource-challenged areas in the developing world have made progress.
The sparsely populated, war-ravaged country of Uganda has made strides in providing morphine to its cancer patients, thanks to the determination of public health advocates like Dr. Jack Jagwe, a former adviser to the Ugandan Health Ministry. In the 1990s, Dr. Jagwe and others partnered with foreign doctors and members of the international community to write into the health code that every Ugandan citizen had the right to palliative care, which was a first in Africa.
Thanks in part to this initiative, Uganda amended its rigid narcotics laws, allowing nurses to prescribe morphine to cancer patients without having a doctor present, which proves essential in delivering morphine to patients in rural areas who are unable to trek long distances to city clinics.
That regulatory easing has opened the door for a nongovernmental entity, Hospice Africa Uganda, to produce its own morphine. This process not only frees Hospice Africa Uganda from dealing with international suppliers; it makes the market more efficient by allowing it to manufacture morphine on demand — indeed, per-patient pain-control costs are now estimated to be about $1 per week. That experience, though still a work in progress, should be a model for other resource-challenged countries.
As with all successful human rights movements, we need to put a face on the injustice of untreated cancer pain. Witnessing a clinic full of poor children with advanced cancer, crying in agony, should convince anyone that access to morphine is a human right.