In the United States, effective and affordable medicines exist that can all but eliminate the burden of physical pain caused by cancer. Unfortunately, these medicines are largely unavailable in many low-income countries.
Can you imagine what it’s like to see a loved one face terminal cancer in pain, knowing that relief is available elsewhere in the world?
In 2013, more than 2.2 million people died with untreated moderate or severe pain from cancer or HIV worldwide. Pain medicines like morphine cost just pennies a day and successfully relieve pain in 80 percent of cancer patients, making them a cornerstone of effective cancer treatment.
Yet outside of the wealthiest countries these medicines are not part of cancer care. In the lower-income countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 97 percent of people who died of cancer or HIV in pain last year did so without pain relief.
However, there is hope.
In countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, and Kenya, the medical community and governments are partnering with the Treat the Pain program of the American Cancer Society to implement innovative, affordable solutions to reduce unnecessary pain and suffering.
In Nigeria, the government is manufacturing an easy-to-use oral morphine solution that is 90 percent less expensive than pain medicines imported from abroad, making effective pain relief newly affordable for all Nigerians. They are also equipping physicians and nurses with the latest training and skills in the assessment and treatment of pain. In Ethiopia, where last year just one hospital provided pain relief, similar measures were taken in nine large hospitals and will expand to another 11 hospitals this year.
Understanding the impact
This low-cost training of health workers to use simple interventions to manage pain, when coupled with access to affordable medicine, has immediate and real results for patients. At Kenyatta National Hospital in Kenya this initiative has cost less than $8,000 to implement, and resulted in a 25 percent reduction in the average pain levels for oncology patients. The program even had a similar impact on pain levels for patients recovering from surgery and lowered average pain levels for burn patients by more than 50 percent.
These examples are the start of a movement across Africa and other lower-income regions of the world to prioritize the relief of suffering and to ensure that people have access to affordable, modern and effective pain relief. These pain relief programs are also examples of the ways that the U.S. oncology community can partner with local initiatives and institutions to create better outcomes for all people with cancer.