WHO Criticized for Withdrawing Opioid Guidelines

By Pat Anson, PNN Editor

A coalition of international palliative care organizations is protesting a decision by the World Health Organization (WHO) to withdraw two guidelines for treating pain with opioid pain medication.

“We are extremely concerned that the withdrawal of these guidance documents will lead to confusion and possible extreme measures that will hinder access to patients with legitimate medical needs,” the coalition said in a joint statement released this week.

The guidelines were withdrawn after two U.S. congressmen released a report that accused WHO of being “corruptly influenced” by Purdue Pharma and other opioid manufactures when it developed the guidelines in 2011 and 2012. The guidelines for treating pain in adults and children state that opioids “are known to be safe and there is no need to fear accidental death or dependence.”

Reps. Katherine Clark (D-MA) and Hal Rogers (R-KY) said the WHO guidelines served as “marketing materials” for Purdue, the maker of OxyContin.

“We are highly troubled that, after igniting the opioid epidemic that cost the United States 50,000 lives in 2017 alone… Purdue is deliberately using the same playbook on an international scale,” the report said. “If the recommendations in these WHO guidelines are followed, there is significant risk of sparking a worldwide public health crisis.”

WHO withdrew the guidelines a month after the report was released, citing “new scientific evidence” that emerged since their publication.

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WHO’s decision to withdraw the guidelines gave credibility to a congressional report based largely on innuendo, according to the statement released by over a hundred palliative care organizations, including the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and the UK-based International Observatory on End of Life Care.

“The report contains serious factual inaccuracies and draws inaccurate and unfair conclusions. It includes misleading information, and by making false accusations of existing collaborations and alliances to advance pain relief and palliative care, concludes that there was corruption within WHO,” the coalition said. “No staff member of the offices of the U.S. representatives contacted any of the organizations or individuals mentioned in the document to seek our responses to the allegations made in the report.”

According to the coalition, the withdrawal of the guidelines could further impede the availability of pain medication in third world countries, where less than 2% of palliative care patients have access to opioids.

“Under-treatment of severe pain is reported in more than 150 countries,” the coalition said. “At least 5 billion people live in countries affected by the crisis of under-consumption, and more than 18 million annually die with untreated, excruciating pain.”

The coalition cited the case of a cancer patient in New Delhi, India, who wanted to die until she was able to obtain opioids through a CanSupport palliative care program.  

I am a functioning human being in charge of my life once again. This has been made possible thanks to the oral morphine that I now take.
— Cancer patient in New Delhi, India

“I was a human wreck. My family was at their wits end as to how to help me. Because of my excruciating pain, I could not sit, sleep, eat or drink, let alone speak or think. When the team first met me my first request to them was for an injection that would put me out of my misery,” the patient said.

“Today, I am a functioning human being in charge of my life once again. This has been made possible thanks to the oral morphine that I now take on a regular basis.”

The palliative care coalition said it was unfair to deny opioids to patients in third world countries because of abuse and addiction problems in the U.S. and other developed nations.  The coalition called on WHO to update and revise the guidelines “with all deliberate speed” and to reinstate them until the revisions are made.