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Many Countries Fail to Treat Pain

Tens of millions of people worldwide are denied access to inexpensive medications for severe pain, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report published Thursday. It says governments around the world are failing to ensure that people suffering from cancer, HIV/AIDS, and other illnesses have palliative care.

The report says in some of the world’s most populated countries, people are dying of cancer and HIV/AIDs without pain treatment.

"We have interviewed many people who told us that their pain was so bad that they wanted to die, that they prayed to God to take them away. In some cases people actually tried to commit suicide because the pain was just intolerable," said Diederik Lohman of Human Rights Watch in New York.

Lohman says there are a number of reasons why people aren’t getting the treatment he says they should have.

One is that morphine, which is the key medication for controlling severe pain, is a controlled substance and in many countries strict drug regulations mean that it’s not easily available.

A second reason, Lohman says, is that in many countries health workers are not well trained in how to treat pain.

"In many countries palliative care and pain management are not part of mandatory curricular for medical students or nursing students," Lohman added. "So as a result, many doctors simply do not know how to manage patients who have severe pain."

The Human Rights Watch report is based on a survey carried out in 40 countries about what pain treatment is available. It also assessed the availability of pain-relieving drugs worldwide.

In 35 countries, fewer than 1 percent of people suffering from either cancer or HIV were able to get strong pain medication. Most of those countries, it says, are in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central America.

But Lohman says the situation is not irretrievable. The problems can be fixed, he says, if governments make the effort.

"We have seen in a number of countries such as Uganda and Colombia and Vietnam, where governments have sat down together with health care workers, together with civil society, and have said, 'we want to solve this problem.' [We believe] that countries even with very limited resources can be tremendous progress in a very short time," Lohman noted.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the majority of cancer patients in the world are in advanced stages of cancer when first seen by a medical professional. It says for them, the only realistic treatment option is pain relief.