Access to pain relief and essential opioids in the WHO South-East Asia Region: challenges in implementing drug reforms. (WHO South-East Asia Journal of Public Health | September 2018)
(2018; 6 pages)


It is a justifiable assumption that more than 15 million people in the World Health Organization South- East Asia Region are experiencing serious health-related suffering, much of it caused by persistent, severe pain. Despite this burden of suffering, overall access to pain relief and palliative care services is abysmal. The lack of access to controlled drugs for pain management is striking: the average morphine equivalence in the region in 2015 was just 1.7 mg per capita, while the global average was 61.5 mg per capita. Until recently, implementation of national legislation to facilitate medical and scientific use of opioids has proven to be very complex and difficult to achieve. The effects on the region of the exploitative British opium trade in previous centuries prompted countries to adopt draconian legislation on opioids, focused on restricting illicit use. In India, the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act of 1985, for example, stipulated harsh custodial sentences for even minor clerical errors in hospitals stocking opioids. Decades of persistent efforts by civil society resulted in the landmark amendment of the Act in 2014 to improve medical access, but implementation remains highly protracted. Although some progress has been made in recent years in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand, pain is a symptom that is grossly undertreated in most parts of the region. On both human rights and public health grounds, there is an urgent need for well-formulated drug policies to increase access to opioid medications, coupled with capacity-building and comprehensive public health systems incorporating palliative care.

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