A historic resolution to relieve pain for all

Photo credit: African Palliative Care Association, Morgana Wingard 

On the outskirts of a Nairobi slum, there lives an elderly gentleman in a metal shack. He had hopes and he had dreams, halted upon the discovery of a marble-sized growth on the left side of his cheek. In most countries, the growth would be treated with a simple operation and radiotherapy. However, his pockets were empty and the gentleman didn’t have much money for food, let alone transportation and treatment.

The years went by and the growth consumed the left side of his face. People no longer understood him when he talked, and were nervous watching him attempt to eat. He isolated himself in the comfort of his shack. When Nairobi Hospice discovered him, a doctor and social worker freed him of his shame. In well-dressed clothing, they walked through the slum to visit him, ensure he was eating, touch his tumor to assess its growth, and offer him adequate pain relief as he prepared for the inevitable. He was scared, but not alone. He had pain, but it was relieved. His community saw that he mattered.

On Friday, the World Health Assembly voted on a historic resolution to ensure that the services extended to this gentleman would be prioritized for the 6.5 million people estimated to die each year without any access to pain medications. While the passing of this resolution serves as a watershed moment in providing pain relief inclusive in palliative care, it may take time and resources for services to trickle down to patients.

Even so, for governments grappling to meet the needs of their patients living with HIV, cancers, and a host of non-communicable diseases, palliative care services are a precious alternative to a slow and painful death, when a cure is either too expensive or out of reach.

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Photo credit: African Palliative Care Association, Morgana Wingard 

The rising prominence of palliative care globally comes on the heals of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize nomination of Professor Dr Anne Merriman, Founder of Hospice Africa, in recognition for bringing peace to thousands of African patients at the end of their lives by introducing a simple solution for oral morphine.

“Family members would never hand their loved ones over to be tortured,” said Merriman. “The suffering we see in cancer and AIDS and other diseases is now considered to be akin to torture. However, many doctors are unable to do much about it because governments have failed to allow the medications required for pain control to be imported into the country.”

Diederik Lohman, senior health researcher at Human Rights Watch and one of the primary advocates for the resolution reinforces this sentiment, International human rights instruments are very clear that access to palliative care is a human rights issue, however, its enforcement comes down to the national level through national courts.”

As for the elderly gentleman, I don’t know how much longer he lived. What I do know is that he was not unnecessarily tortured with debilitating pain. Rather, his needs were addressed with care and dignity.

What I also know, is that the international community has spoken volumes to his and the 6.5 million silent prayers of people nearing the end of their lives every year, saying: we’re listening to your pain and are going to treat it even if we can’t always treat its root cause. 

Interested in this issue? Visit ehospice to follow global palliative care developments.

Shelley Enarson is a Kampala-based communications consultant and palliative care advocate who serves as a board member for Hospice Africa Uganda.