Kenya's Lack of Pain Medicine Brings an Unorthodox Solution

Is it ever okay to use illicit drugs for medical use?

Posted: 04/12/2011 06:04 PM EDT

Imagine if you or a loved one were suffering from a painful chronic or terminal disease and the hospital didn't have proper pain-management medication. Now imagine being able to purchase a wealth of illegal painkilling drugs blocks from the hospital. For many people in Kenya, this situation is far too real.

Kenya has become an international hub for the illegal drug trade, with heroin as the main export, according to the 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Meanwhile there are thousands of patients lying in pain without access to proper pain medicine, which has some suggesting a controversial solution: using seized drugs to treat the patients. Is it ever OK to use illicit drugs for medical use?

The question is valid. Heroin, which is also known as diamorphine, has been used in Great Britain for cancer pain treatment. In small amounts, diamorphine is similar to morphine. Cancer has become a leading cause of death in Kenya, with approximately 80,000 new cases every year and 50 deaths daily.

Wouldn't it just be easier to use morphine? Sure it would, if doctors could get access. According to, only seven hospitals currently carry oral morphine, the accepted treatment for pain management. Morphine is in such short supply at hospitals not because of cost, but due to lack of training. Until recently medical professionals were trained to administer morphine only to  terminal patients and only in small doses. Children were often left untreated for fear of killing them by administering too much of the drug.

While it might be tempting to supplement the morphine supply with heroin, it could become a slippery and dangerous slope. Kenya is already fighting a drug war against smugglers. And it's not just the smugglers the authorities have to deal with—several high-ranking government officials are currently being investigated on charges of drug running. Using even a fraction of illegal drugs, no matter how small, could send the message that dangerous drugs like heroin are accepted. A better solution would be to train Kenyan medical providers in the correct usage of morphine and to drum up foreign aid to supply all of Kenya's hospitals with this inexpensive but vital medicine.


(Photo: LIU CHAN/Xinhua/Landov)