‘Opiophobia’ Leaves Millions Dying in Chronic Pain

By Pat Anson, Editor

More than 25 million people – most of them poor and living in developing countries – die each year in severe pain because they have little or no access to morphine and other painkillers, according to a new report.

A special commission created by The Lancet medical journal looked at pain care around the world and found major gaps in the availability of opioid pain medication. While opioid analgesics are relatively available in the United States and Canada, patients in many parts of the world have no access to them. In addition to the 25 million who die in pain, the commission estimated that another 35 million live with chronic pain that is untreated.

“The fact that access to such an inexpensive, essential, and effective intervention is denied to most patients in low-income and middle-income countries and in particular to poor people -- including many poor or otherwise vulnerable people in high-income countries -- is a medical, public health, and moral failing and a travesty of justice,” the Lancet commission found.

"Unlike many other essential health interventions already identified as priorities, the need for palliative care and pain relief has been largely ignored, even for the most vulnerable populations, including children with terminal illnesses and those living through humanitarian crises."


The voluminous report by 61 health experts from 25 countries took three years to prepare. It shared the story of a doctor in India who treated a patient named “Mr S” who suffered crippling pain from lung cancer. The doctor was able to provide him with morphine to relieve his pain, but when Mr S returned the next month, no morphine was available.

“Mr S told us with outward calm, ‘I shall come again next Wednesday. I will bring a piece of rope with me. If the tablets are still not here, I am going to hang myself from that tree.’ He pointed to the window. I believed he meant what he said,” the doctor said.

The commission said there were several barriers that stood in the way of effectively treating pain, including “opiophobia” – prejudice and misinformation about the medical value of opioids.

A prevalent but unwarranted fear of non-medical use and addiction to opioids and opioid-induced side-effects, both among health-care providers and regulators and among patients and their families, has led to insufficient medical use. Unbalanced laws and excessive regulation perpetuate a negative feedback loop of poor access that mainly affects poor people,” the commission said.

“Efforts to prevent non-medical use of internationally controlled substances, such as morphine and other opioid analgesics, have overshadowed and crippled access to opioids for palliative care. These efforts have focused on preventing diversion and non-medical use rather than ensuring access by people with legitimate health needs.”

The commission also blamed the poor state of pain care on a tendency in the medical community to focus on curing and preventing disease, rather than preserving a patient’s quality of life and dignity.  

The report recommends that palliative care be included as part of universal health care coverage and that inexpensive morphine should be available “for any patient with medical need.”