Dr. Katherine I. Pettus, PhD, IAHPC Advocacy Officer for Palliative Care Medicines, reports on key advocacy meetings in Vienna
The March advocacy highlight was the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna, which also happened to be the 60th anniversary or ‘Diamond Jubilee’ of the CND. For many of us involved in advocacy, especially those who work on improving access to controlled medicines, this meeting marked a banner year, coming after the historic 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) meeting on drugs last April. Like couples who have survived and matured through sixty years of marriage, the Commission can celebrate its maturing relationship with civil society organizations that have worked tirelessly over recent decades to change the focus of international drug policy from a punitive, criminal justice oriented approach, to one that is person-cantered and that prioritizes public health outcomes such as improved access to medicines for pain and palliative care. Around 100 side events and numerous exhibitions were held during the session, which was attended by more than 1,500 people representing member states, civil society, academia and international organizations.
The meeting evidenced a sea change in the overall narrative, with many countries mentioning what they are doing to implement the many health-oriented operational recommendations of the UNGASS Outcome Document chapters. Improving availability of controlled palliative care medicines, such as morphine, is no longer an obligation member states can ignore, as they have until recently, since the topic now has a stand-alone chapter. Governments must now report regularly on progress in implementation, and the CND Chair has requested civil society organizations, such as IAHPC and partners, to report on progress and challenges along the road. See this recent report on the participation of partners from India and Ukraine.
Most participating member states and regional organizations, as well as representatives of UN Agencies, the Director General of the World Health Organization, and the President of the International Narcotics Control Board, mentioned the need to improve availability of controlled medicines in their opening plenary speeches and throughout the five-day meeting. There was even a ‘gala’ special side event on the topic, in which I presented as the civil society representative, in the company of IAHPC Board Chair, Dr. Lukas Radbruch, Pain and Policy Studies Group Director, Dr. Jim Cleary, and Executive Director of the Kenya Hospices and Palliative Care Association, Dr. Zipporah Ali. Norway Ambassador Her Excellency Bente Angel-Hansen, who is also Chair of CND this year, said she was “very happy to see the multilateral family in Vienna joining forces on this important agenda […] we have to deliver much better on this because the global gaps are so telling and really horrific when it comes to coverage. I want to thank civil society for the way they champion this issue because they never let a meeting go without reminding us of the imperative of this item.”
The paradigm shift evident at the recent CND meeting can also be attributed to the mandate from the UN General Assembly to align drug policy with the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, whose slogan is ‘Leave No One Behind.’ This includes the most vulnerable and poorest populations among us, namely people who use drugs problematically, as well as patients and families facing life-limiting illnesses. The Vienna Committee on Drugs, of which I am vice-chair, hosted a side event called ‘Civil Society and International Drug Policy in the Context of Agenda 2030’. I chaired the event and gave a short talk on how improving availability of controlled medicines for the treatment of pain and palliative care will support governments’ progress to at least eight of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A video of the event is available on the VNGOC website.
CND passed a resolution to continue having member states report on implementation of the UNGASS Outcome Document in the context of Agenda 2030, and I will be calling on our partners and members in the next few years to participate in this reporting process as it develops. Please feel free to contact me for more information.