for terminal patients: Vitas House in St James.

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'Our cancer patients are in agony'

Hospice director laments lack of pain medication imported into T&T

By Keino Swamber keino.swamber@trinidadexpress.com

CANCER patients in Trinidad and Tobago are in dire need of special pain-relieving drugs, but pleas to the Health Ministry seem to have fallen on deaf ears.

However, Health Minister Dr Fuad Khan says the responsibility now rests with Chief Medical Officer Dr Anton Cumberbatch and the Food and Drugs Division.

Chairman and medical director of Vitas House Dr Jacqueline Pereira Sabga says there is a need for the policy surrounding the importation of drugs to be revised.

Vitas House, located on the grounds of the St James Infirmary, is a free hospice for the terminally ill cancer patient. The facility, which provides treatment to help relieve cancer-related symptoms (but not cure the disease) opened its doors in October 2008.

"Despite repeated meetings and letter-writing, there has been little or no initiative to rectify this most embarrassing and grievous situation where cancer patients, and to a larger extent the people of this country, are left in agony to bear not only an inefficient system, but a system that cannot facilitate the relief of pain," Pereira Sabga said.

"Patients are left with both emotional and physical pain and disease that a failing medical system cannot amend. This must be unacceptable."

Pereira Sabga said there have been several requests over the past four years for Government to expand the range and quantity of pain-relief medication imported into the country.

"On many occasions, the limited supply of pain medications are rapidly depleted and there are gaps where substandard regimes are hatched to attempt to keep patients relatively pain-free.

"In a health system that has at its disposal impressive anti-cancer medications that are in fact saving lives, we are failing to realise that as our patients live, their treatment may consist of long-term pain management.

"For those who are not as fortunate, we must also facilitate a death that is humane, dignified and pain-free."

Contacted by the Express last week, Khan acknowledged the problem has been existing for some time. He said the issue was raised with him and he had promised to have the Food and Drugs Division address it.

"I have been trying my best over the past few months to organise the narcotic analgesic patches," Khan said.

"I believe in palliative care as well as care for the terminally ill. (But) what has been happening is that a lot of people believe that by giving terminally ill patients narcotic analgesics, they are in some way committing euthanasia, so they tend to hold back from giving out the narcotic analgesics.

"I am all for having them (Vitas House) bringing in the narcotic analgesic patches themselves. I agree with Dr Sabga that it has been very long in coming, so I could understand why she is frustrated."

Cumberbatch was also contacted, but declined giving a response via telephone.

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