10 per cent of the world uses 90 per cent of the morphine: this needs to change

Pain relief and palliative care is a human right - and yet global access to drugs is grossly unequal. Change is urgently needed.

10 per cent of the world consumes 90 per cent of the morphine. At first glance that's just another statistic about haves and have nots. But it's more stark than that - particularly if you have cancer in a country where access to pain relief is very limited.

At the heart of the issue is the problem of giving access to drugs and how that's managed. Making drugs available, even under controlled circumstances, is seen in many countries to be facilitating crime and corruption. As a result the legislation in some countries will use language like "addictive drugs" to describe pain relief that people in the developed world see as a basic human necessity, and the only way to avoid a horrific end to many lives: the 12 million people with cancer, but also those with advanced heart, lung or kidney diseases, progressive neurological diseases, HIV/AIDS or tuberculosis.

The various legal and regulatory barriers, mostly relating to prescribing and dispensing of opioids (medications that relieve pain, such as morphine), is just one of the problems. Inevitably there's an issue with costs. Pharmaceutical companies have little interest in producing cheap oral morphine because profits are only marginal. In Ukraine, for example, that means only injectable morphine is available. So patients with chronic cancer pain need painful injections several times per day and may be left without pain relief for hours between. Attitudes among healthcare professionals will vary from country to country. Often there's fear at the possibility of prosecution from prescribing analgesics and a desire to avoid taking any responsibility in a murky area. Even when a law might recognise that controlled medicines are necessary, healthcare staff will be wary of the potential for being investigated and the kinds of disproportionate punishments that might await them.

The under-treatment of cancer pain is a major public health crisis in both developing economies and many parts of the 'under-developed' world. There have been isolated efforts by international organizations to address the problem, but the headline is that little headway has been made. Research led by the European Association for Palliative Care has looked at treatment of cancer pain across 76 countries between 2010 and 2012, showing highly restrictive regulations on what patients can receive in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin and Central America. Expert observers saw that very few countries provided all seven of the opioid medications considered essential for the relief of cancer pain in international guidelines. In many countries, fewer than three of the seven medications are available, and when medications are available they are either entirely unsubsidised or weakly subsidised by government, with limited availability. Restrictions for cancer patients include regulations that limit entitlement to receive prescriptions, limits on duration of prescriptions, restricted dispensing, and large amounts of bureaucracy around the whole prescribing and dispensing process.

Eastern Europe is also a crisis area. Essential opioid medicines are completely unavailable in Lithuania, Tajikistan, Belarus, Albania, Georgia and Ukraine. There are problems elsewhere, including Russia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Bosnia-Herzegovina with regulations that limit physicians' ability to prescribe opioids even for patients in severe pain; arbitrary dosage limits, and intimidating health care providers and pharmacists with severe legal sanctions - all contravening regulations from the WHO and International Narcotic Control Board which recommend that opioids should be available for cancer patients at hospital and community levels and that physicians should be able to prescribe opioids according to the individual needs of each patient.

Legislation makes issues black and white when more debate and education is needed among the decision makers in health care systems. Health policies are needed that integrate palliative care as a normal part of health services, and provide support to relatives during the time of care and after death; excessive restrictions that prevent legitimate access to medications need to be identified and stripped away; and crucially, more attention to providing safe and secure distribution systems that allow staff and patients access to opioids no matter where they are. There's also a lack of training among physicians and staff on the ground treating suffering patients about the issues, and what they can and can't do. A basic knowledge of palliative care needs to be part of undergraduate training for all healthcare workers, along with specialty palliative care programmes for postgrads.

Access to palliative care is a human right, and failure - by governments - to provide palliative care could be seen as constituting cruel or inhuman treatment. More concerted pressure is needed from everyone involved in healthcare worldwide, in policy or delivery, if these basic principles are going to result in changes that are urgently needed.

Professor Sheila Payne is chair of the European Association for Palliative Care, Lancaster University. The Prague Charter, calling for access to palliative care as a human right, can be signed at http://www.eapcnet.eu

A nurse walks with children outside an orphanage and hospital in Addis Ababa. Photograph: Getty Images.
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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser