updated 3/4/2008 7:09:40 PM ET 2008-03-05T00:09:40

Many people, especially those in developing countries, needlessly suffer during childbirth or cancer because of insufficient painkiller use, a global watchdog said Wednesday.

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Governments should take steps to improve the availability of opioid analgesics — narcotic drugs used for the treatment of moderate to severe pain, the U.N.-affiliated International Narcotics Control Board said in its annual report for 2007.

“The low levels of consumption of opioid analgesics for the treatment of pain in many countries, in particular in developing countries, continues to be a matter of serious concern for the board,” the Vienna-based board said in its annual report.

While global consumption of opioid analgesics has increased by more than 2½ times over the past decade, the jump occurred mostly in Europe and North America, the report said.

In 2006, countries in those two regions combined accounted for almost 96 percent of the global consumption of fentanyl, 89 percent of the global consumption of morphine and 97 percent of the global consumption of oxycodone.

“The board again urges all governments concerned to identify the impediments in their countries to adequate use of opioid analgesics for the treatment of pain and to take steps to improve the availability of those narcotic drugs for medical purposes,” the report said.

The strong painkillers are not available in some parts of the world because of cost or may be prohibited by regulatory systems, said INCB President Philip O. Emafo.

“We have continued to be in dialogue with governments to ensure that patients who need these drugs need not be denied these drugs because they are important for the treatment of pain,” Emafo said.

A lack of health personnel trained to prescribe the substances is also an obstacle, he said. And cultural barriers, particularly in Asia and Africa, keep some, especially men, from acknowledging they are in pain because they don’t want to be seen as “weaklings,” Emafo added.

The board calls on countries to support a World Health Organization program that aims to improve medical access to such pain relieving medicine.

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