Opioid is a class of synthetic drugs made from opium – a power substance to suppress pain. In North America, the fatality of opioid – from Morphine to OxyContin to Fentanyl- overdose has risen rapidly, creating an epidemic of opioid abuse. In Ontario alone, these drugs have killed nearly 2,500 people between 2011 and 2014.
The abuse was caused by the widespread prescription of painkillers in Canada. Experts believe that there are millions of people in North America currently on these painkillers, calling it Canada’s biggest drug safety problem. According to information from CAMH, between 2010 and 2013, the prescription of two new opioids, Hydromorphone and Fentanyl have climbed by 56% and 15% respectively, leading to 24% rise in fatality of opioids overdose.
But opioid abuse is far less prevalent in China than in Western countries. While morphine have long been used in Western medicine to manage severe pain following surgery or to ease the suffering of advanced cancer patients, opioids remain rarely used in China – despite its rapid rise of cancer patients.
In China, the use of opioids is falling far behind that of the U.S. According to Bloomberg News, 76.86 million grams of opioids will be used in China this year, a mere fraction of the 1.36 billion grams Americans will take. The total consumption of opioids in Australia, a country with just under 25 million people, is almost 50% more than China.
When it comes to pain, many Chinese people prefer to tough it out than resort to painkillers. Chinese people say, 'I don't need to take pain medication; I'm a strong person," says Dr Cheung Chi-wai, president of the Society of Anaesthetists in Hong Kong. "Even post-surgery patients are refusing pain medication because they think that is the way to act."
Sensitive historical memories of the opium wars may play a big role in Chinese people’s aversion to opioids. In the 19th century, China lost two wars to the British in a futile attempt to keep opium out of the country. As a result, millions of people became addicted to the drug, and over 25% of Chinese men used the drug regularly.
China has come a long way since the drug ridden days of the Opium Wars. After the Chinese communist party took power, it immediately took a slew of actions to eradicate opium. Peasants were no longer allowed to plough opium crops, residents were ordered to attend education programs on the harms of opioids, and addicts were encouraged by the family members to seek help. Wiping out “the scourge of opium” was one of the Chinese government’s proudest achievements.
The Chinese government has also imposed restrictions on opioid use that are far more stringent than Western countries. Its fierce crackdown on opium has aroused public fear and condemnation towards the drug.
But contemporary society has engaged in a modern-day opium war. On one hand, patients suffering from chronic pain or dying from cancer need opioid prescription to suppress pain, while on the other hand, opioid addiction presents a serious challenge, leaving doctors’ struggling with moral obligations and forcing patients into a dilemma.
Unsurprisingly in this war, many of those affected by the Chinese government’s fear mongering campaign against opium choose to avoid this struggle altogether. They prefer to succumb to the pain and to stay away from opioid.
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