Palliative Care: A Missing Element in African Healthcare

September 21, 2011

Palliative Care - Jaldu Health Center.nodePalliative care is the practice of relieving painful symptoms of chronic or deadly diseases without curing the underlying cause, typically awarded as an end-of-life treatment to limit patient suffering. In the United States, more than 55 percent of hospitals offer palliative care programs. However, in many Sub-Saharan African countries, palliative care is not an option, forcing patients with incurable diseases to live the end of their lives in extreme anguish.

Dr. Ira Byock, author of Dying Well and Director of Palliative Medicine at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, writes, “Dying is more than a set of problems to be solved. The nature of dying is not medical, it is experiential. Dying is fundamentally a personal experience, not a set of medical problems to be solved.”

A major problem furthering development of palliative care in Sub-Saharan Africa is the restriction of the morphine supply throughout the region. Presently, 32 African countries lack any type of morphine distribution and only 14 African countries have access to oral tablets. Access to injectable morphine is nearly impossible throughout Africa.

Policymakers fear increased access to morphine will result in an increased number of morphine addictions. This controversial reasoning neglects to consider the fact that 89 percent of the global morphine supply is consumed by North Americans and Europeans. Why is the global morphine supply limited to Western countries? A 2009 report from Human Rights Watch details the inequalities of morphine access between Western countries and the Global South.

The World Health Organization recently reported that 5.5 million late stage cancer patients, one million late stage HIV/AIDS patients and 800,000 injured patients lack access to proper pain relief. The report aims to develop a palliative care framework regarding diseases such as cancer and HIV/AIDS, to advocate for morphine availability, and to exchange ideas with participating target countries – Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

Content submitted by THP Advocacy Intern, Elisabeth Epstein