Global opioid crisis: too much yet too little

Opioids are hitting headlines for all the wrong reasons at the moment. President Trump has declared opioid overuse in the US as a public health emergency, whilst other countries are crying out for the painkilling drug.

Obsessed with opioids

The term ‘opioids’ covers a wide range of drugs from the commonly used painkiller codeine to illegal drugs such as heroin. In many developed countries, opioids are given as a prescription drug for pain relief.

Typically, they are prescribed for a limited period of time in order to treat moderate to severe pain that does not respond to standard painkillers like ibuprofen and paracetamol. For example, doctors tend to prescribe opioids such as morphine for patients post-operation or for people in pain at the end of their lives.

However, opioids are known for being highly addictive. Opioid users experience feelings of intense pleasure when taking the drug. This can make people want to continue using opioids purely to continue to experience these happy feelings, creating an unhealthy dependence on the drugs.

High doses of opioids can lead to death as the drugs can slow your breathing and heart rate. Drinking alcohol whilst taking opioids is also a recipe for disaster and can lead to serious consequences.

Public health emergency

The US is experiencing an opioid epidemic. The US offers no national health service meaning that most Americans buy health insurance. Health insurance companies aren’t always willing to pay for what might be the most appropriate treatment, as this is likely to be the most expensive. Consequently, opioids are prescribed as they are the cheapest and easiest options to prescribe.

President Trump referred to the opioid crisis in the US as a ‘national shame’ in October 2017. Over the last year, there has been a 30% increase in opioid overdoses in the US with tens of thousands of Americans dying from opioid use every year.

Similarly, the UK’s National Health Service has been accused of feeding an ‘addiction crisis’. Prescription opioids have increased by over 10 million between 2007 and 2017. Public Health England has been instructed to carry out a review into the scale and nature of the nation’s opioid problem.

The opioid gap

What is most disturbing about the consumption of opioids worldwide is that many countries are in desperate need of opioids as a painkiller for severe pain. The US are using more than 30 times the amount of opioids than it needs for medical purposes.

Poor and middle-income countries are suffering from a serious demand and supply problem. Many people who are dying from terminal illnesses are doing so with excruciating pain and limited relief.

A major study by The Lancet found that there was a ‘broad and deep abyss’ in access to painkillers between rich countries and poor countries. It has been reported that Haiti receives less than 1% of the opioids it needs for pain relief, and Nigeria gets a mere 0.2% of what is needed.

An independent body, The International Narcotics Control Board, has estimated that 92% of all morphine is used in America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Western Europe, despite their inhabitants only making up 17% of the world’s population.

These figures are shocking and reinforce the need for something to be done about this imbalancement.

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