The miscalculated fear of an opioid crisis in Haiti

Opioids are an essential class of drugs used in pain management. In recent years, complex mechanisms pertaining to their abusive use have prompted a deadly crisis which is unfolding in the United States. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated that 91 Americans lose their lives daily due to an overdose of opioid drugs. This public health crisis has inspired much apprehension even among Haitian diaspora in the United States. Although needed painkillers are notably lacking in developing countries, the fear of a similar path has led a high-profile personality to advise against their use in Haiti. Indeed, health professionals are alarmed about the addictive potential of opioid drugs used in the long run. But such fear-mongering statement could do more harm than good, especially for many suffering patients who desperately need opioid drugs. It also impairs trust in regulatory efforts to prevent drug misuse.

I often recall the days when René was hospitalized in Cap-Haitien’s hospital Justinien. What had him bedridden was a rare bacterial infection known as necrotizing fasciitis (or flesh-eating disease) which means that his right leg’s soft tissue was quickly dying. His daily wound care was particularly painful because a doctor or nurse had to unstrap his sticky bandage and clean all along under his skin, with no painkiller prior to or during the intervention. René used to scream his lungs out. In developed countries, patients are admitted to a specialized unit for such procedure and are given morphine (a common opiate) for pain relief. That wasn’t a chance available to René and many other patients who presented with acute conditions such as road injuries or bone dislocation. The lack of strong painkillers also affects chronically ill patients and those requiring palliative care. Patients dying from gastric cancer could suffer unbearable pain in their last days, relying only on first line painkillers. According to a study conducted in 2015, analgesics of all kind are available only in 63.8% of health centers in Port-au-Prince. When opioids are available, their use is strongly regulated.

In Haiti, a collaborative initiative led by the Pan-American Health Organization is responsible to create a national list of essential drugs among which analgesic opioids are listed. They also procure from international market at low cost and distribute them through State-run institutions and programs and registered-NGOs, under regulation from the national department of drugs and pharmacology. In most institutions, prescription and acquisition of morphine requires filling a special record cart detailing the patient’s information, reasons to use the drug and the prescribing doctor’s signature. It helps to promote a rational use of such medicines. Despite these mechanisms, a parallel and less regulated market of pharmaceuticals has developed in Haiti which exposes people to unsafe products. However, there’s close to no empirical evidence that opioid drugs are sold over-the-counter on the street market or that over-prescription of such drugs is prevalent at large scale.

It doesn’t mean that misuse and addiction to opioid drugs never occur in Haiti. This is why appropriate education is mandatory to mitigate such serious risks. Medical and pharmacological associations and societies in Haiti have the duty to address the use of medicines, train doctors and nurses and communicate in effective and innovative ways with the population. A deadly opioid epidemic in the United States, with no doubt, rings a global alarm, but opioid drugs are much needed for acute and palliative care in Haiti where they are lacking. On the other hand, fear-mongering statements made by influencers have the potential to alter trust in regulatory efforts to promote a rational use of opioid drugs and put patients at greater risks.  Maintain or regain that trust might be a new challenge for the national department of drugs and pharmacology of Haiti.

Kenny Moise is a physician who blogs at his self-titled site, Kenny Moise.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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