The opioid epidemic threatens to go global
OxyContin may be a dying business in the United States but the painkiller that set off the opioid epidemic is reaching medicine cabinets around the world. Between 2010-2016 OxyContin prescriptions dropped nearly 40% as top health officials discouraged primary care doctors from prescribing it for chronic pain in the US.
With this in mind, a network of international companies known as Mundipharma are expanding into Latin America, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa as a strategy to refocus their company in the developing world after sales in the US dropped.
In 2011 they opened a factory in China with the capacity to produce 100 million tablets. IN 2013 Vietnam Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand followed and in 2013 operations were launched in Colombia and Brazil. Mexico and Egypt were next (2014) and Argentina (2016). In Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela Mundipharma has plans to launch operations.
The problem with this global drive is the fact they are using marketing strategies that made OxyContin a pharma blockbuster in the US and downplay the risks of addiction.
In Brazil and China for example, the companies give seminars in which doctors are urged to overcome their ‘opiophobia’ and prescribe the painkillers. Also public awareness campaigns encourage people to seek treatment for chronic pain, and discounts to make prescriptions more affordable.
“I would urge them to be very cautious about the marketing of these medications,” he said U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek H. Murthy, in an interview with the LA Times. “Now, in retrospect, we realize that for many the benefits did not outweigh the risks.” More so, according to former US Food and Drug Administration commissioner David A. Kessler the failure to recognize the dangers of painkillers was one of the biggest mistakes in modern medicine, he told the LA Times.
Meanwhile, Mundipharma International, based Cambridge, England says they are “mindful of the risk of abuse and misuse of opioids” and it was “drawing on the experiences and insights of the US in tackling this issue:”
“Mundipharma is committed to developing prescription medicines for healthcare professionals to treat patients in pain safely and responsibly,” their statement said.
But they’re taking advantage of the use of opioids or cases of untreated pain and terminal diseases to make big money. According to Stefano Berterame, of the UN affiliated International Narcotics Control Board in Vienna, companies pursue patients that are healthy enough to be costumers for a long time.
“If your market is only cases of terminal cancer, then your market is relatively limited…,” Berterame said. “If you enlarge the market to also chronic pain, then you are talking about big money.”
In fact, companies like Mundipharma used “Rebel Against the Pain” spots in Youtube to redefine chronic pain a which “is an illness in and of itself.” They used celebrities to deliver the message and gain popularity among potential patients. Also, companies cite statistics showing millions of people are in pain. For example, after opening an office in Mexico the company said 28 million people were suffering from chronic pain. In Brazil, up to 80 million and in Colombia they said 47% of the population (about 22 million) were afflicted by “this silent epidemic.”
More so, countries like Canada and Australia were OxyContin was promoted and sold like in the US have shown US-style problems like death, criminal trafficking and addiction in the last 15 years.
“If people misuse drugs, most of the time there is little a pharmaceutical company can do,” said one of Mundipharma’s managing directors in Cyprus, where 6 deaths have been related to OxyContin.
With up to 24% of patients who take the drugs long-term developing addiction problems, as declared the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the opioid epidemic going global might not be as far as we think.