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Relieving Pain and Suffering for Millions

  • Joe DeCapua

In this undated photo made available by Scott Anger & Bob Sacha for the Open Society Foundations, in Cherkasy, Ukraine, Nadezhda Zhukovsky, 50, kisses her sleeping son Vlad, who died of brain cancer last year at age 27, before going to the local pharmacy
Millions of people around the world with serious illnesses do not get palliative care. That is, medical care that could relieve their pain and suffering. It’s estimated that 80 percent of those in need of palliative care are in low and middle income countries.

Only about one in ten people who need palliative care are getting it. That’s according to a new publication from the World Health Organization and the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance.

“Palliative care is whole person care for individuals and families that are facing life threatening illness. Those are illnesses that we don’t expect the patient to recover from. Palliative care is provided by a team of professionals – both healthcare and psychosocial professionals – who support the patient and family through the time when the illness is serious and the symptoms need managing. Palliative care mainly focuses on relief of pain, shortness of breath and other significant symptoms of serious illness,” said Dr. Stephen Connor , a senior fellow with the alliance.

The new document is called the Global Atlas of Palliative Care at the End of Life.

Connor said, “It’s a publication that attempts to paint a picture of what the needs are for palliative care – what the barriers are to palliative care development – what palliative care currently exists – what are the resources that we have to draw on to develop palliative care – and then what is the way forward? It’s an advocacy document.”

He said that about 40 million people each year need palliative care – 20 million of those at the end of life

The atlas reports about one-third of those who need it have cancer. Others, it said, have progressive illnesses affecting the heart, lungs, liver, kidney and brain. HIV and drug-resistant tuberculosis are included.

“Palliative care is, we believe, a human right. And when people are suffering -- and the means to relieve that suffering is available -- we feel it must be provided to relieve the suffering of millions of people each year,” he said.

It’s important, he said, that such care include the families of those who are sick.

“Sometimes we need to care for the family in order for them to provide care to the person that they love. And we also know that when someone has a bad experience when they’re seriously ill – and then at the end of life – it has effects on the family that are far reaching in the bereavement period. Many times people will have difficult adjustments and it’ll affect their ability to work or function.”
The Global Atlas of Palliative Care calls on all countries to make it part of their healthcare systems. Doing so, it says, can reduce costs because patients actually spend less time in the hospital and more time at home.

Countries are also called on to provide essential medications to relieve pain, including oral morphine, and to have specialists available.

Connor said, “It’s sometimes not so much a matter of having to create a new a new health service, but adapt the existing health service.”

The atlas can be downloaded at the websites of the World Health Organization and the Worldwide Palliative Care Alliance.