Prompted by a seemingly endless string of stories about suicides by people suffering from cancer pain, the Russian government has finally been pressured into acting - by barring the media from reporting on the issue.
The story begins with a February 20 article in an online news outlet, Pravoslavie i Mir, about the suicides of two cancer patients who had reportedly suffered from severe pain that was not properly treated. Russian cancer patients have long faced significant barriers to accessing pain killers like morphine. The article quoted the wife of one of the patients as saying that her husband “had been suffering from constant pain caused by cancer and often said that he was tired of his illness.”
Last week Russia’s media watchdog, Roskomnadzor, ordered the online news outlet to delete details of the suicides and any speculation over what prompted these desperate acts – including the wife’s statement. Roskomnadzor later clarified it had acted at the behest Russia’s consumer protection agency, which had concluded that the article promoted suicide, something banned under Russian law.
It’s not clear how a news article that describes how untreated cancer pain drove two people to take their own lives promotes suicide. What is clear is chronic, untreated pain from cancer causes some people to see suicide as the only way out. Human Rights Watch has documented such cases in countries as diverse as India, Mexico, Senegal and, of course, Russia.
Russia has some of the most restrictive drug laws in the world, creating myriad bureaucratic procedures that impede the prescribing and dispensing of opioid analgesics. In layman terms, the unnecessary restrictions mean that patients who need essential medicines can’t get them. Russia has also prosecuted healthcare workers for minor infractions of these rules, even when there was no question these steps were taken to provide better care to patients. The combination of bureaucratic hurdles and fear of dealing with these medicines has led to gross under-prescribing. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 80 percent of Russians with moderate to severe pain due to advanced cancer and AIDS do not have access to adequate pain medications.
It is deplorable that instead of addressing the issue, the authorities make critically important public discussion impossible.