Zainabu Sesay will die in pain in Sierra Leone from breast cancer that has spread into her lymph glands. A tumor has “burst through her skin, looking like a putrid head of cauliflower weeping small amounts of blood at its edges,” reported the “New York Times.”

She has no access to the one cheap, legal painkiller–morphine.

An estimated 4.8 million people with cancer and 1.4 million with “late-stage AIDS” have no treatment for pain. Those suffering from burns, sickle-cell diseases and traffic accidents have no pain treatment, either.

Residents of wealthy nations–the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Britain and Australia–“consume 79 percent of the world’s morphine,” reported the Times. Residents in poor countries, where 80 percent of the global population live, consume about 6 percent of the morphine. A resident in the U.S. is 17,000 times more likely to consume morphine for pain treatment that a resident in Sierra Leone.

I was one of those wealthy Americans. During treatment for acute leukemia in March 2005, I had my own morphine pump, clipped to the right-hand side of the bed in easy reach.

When the Vanderbilt Medical Center staff told me about my morphine pump, I recall questioning that decision, raising concerns about the addictive nature of the medicine. The staff told me not to worry about it, that I would not be able over-medicate myself. I have no memory of ever using the morphine pump. I do remember telling nurses that I had no pain when they asked me to rate my pain level, perhaps an answer with evidence that indeed the pump was in use. At some point, Betsy, my wife, insisted that the staff take me off the morphine.

I had pain treatment. The poor in Africa do not. That reality creates a moral conundrum, certainly for those of us who confess the universality of divinely given human worth. We can hardly utter a belief in the image of God embedded in every human being and remain inactive about the disparity in the treatment for pain.

Pain is so bad among impoverished Africans, according to the Times article, that some sufferers without pharmaceutical remedies take other remedies–“hanging themselves or throwing themselves in front of trucks.”

Yet opium, the base ingredient for morphine, is widely available. Morphine is relatively inexpensive. In fact, the Times said that a Ugandan hospice “mixes its own liquid morphine so cheaply that a three-week supply cost less than a loaf of bread.”

Still morphine isn’t widely used in poor nations due to the fear of drug addiction and the reality of poverty.

Rich nations, on the other hand, have both a drug addiction problem and a banquet table of pharmaceuticals. We are bombarded with drug options on television and in magazines. Our email boxes fill up with spam promises resulting from pill popping.

We are promised solutions to every ailment–real or imaginary–restless-leg syndrome, acid reflux, sleep troubles, bad breath, stomach aches, erectile dysfunction, male urinary problems, genital herpes, cholesterol, ADHD, bipolar disorder, allergies, asthma, headaches, backaches.

Some of God’s children are awash in necessary and unnecessary drugs. Other children of God are awash in real pain.

We may teach our children with a song about how God loves all the little children of the world. We simply don’t mean it. If we meant it, we would have a different set of political commitments, our church budgets would have a different set of priorities, our denominational offices would have different agendas, and our personal budgets would have different expenditures.

Through Moses, God told the freed Hebrew slaves that the poor would always be among them, therefore they were to open wide their hand to those at the margins of life (Deut. 15:11).

The Bible has realism, recognizing the entrenched nature of poverty. At the same time, the Bible calls for responsibility for the least of those among us.

Some of us are sick of drug-related spam e-mails, TV pitches and print ads. Others in poor nations are simple sick with no drugs.

October is historically a time when Christians turn their thoughts and respond to global hunger and poverty.

Order “Always…Therefore,” a DVD with a four-part study guide that equips people of faith to meet some of the needs of those who are hungry and in ill-health through Baptist World Aid.

The Hebrew prophet Micah tells us that the Lord requires that we do justice. That’s a moral mandate. One way to do justice is through an education and action initiative like “Always…Therefore.”

What do you think Micah would say about pain without morphine?

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics. 

Order “Always…Therefore: The Church’s Challenge of Global Poverty.”

Previous related articles:
Personal Note About Drug Use, and the Desert
Looking Firsthand at America’s Health Care Crisis
Straight Talk About BCE’s Situation
BCE Executive Director Gives a Word of Gratitude
What I Learned from a Month in the Hospital
BCE Executive Director Being Treated at Home

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