The Toronto Star, May 30, 2011
By Craig and Marc Kielburger
We build schools in Kenyan villages where teachers die, but their students refuse to name the cause because of its potent stigma, even as coffins are lowered into graves.
We’ve seen husbands, mothers, and then their children, wither away from a mysterious illness rather than be ostracized with a diagnosis.
In North America, access to treatment makes it possible for people with HIV/AIDS to lead relatively comfortable lives. In developing countries, where antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) are prohibitively expensive, AIDS is a curse.
There’s still no cure, but Canada has a chance to save potentially millions of lives with a single legislation. Bill C-393 would reform Canada’s Access to Medicines Regime, a system so flawed it’s only been used to ship a single drug to Rwanda since it was first introduced six years ago.
Bill C-393 allows Canadian companies to manufacture generic versions of patented drugs, like ARVs, making it easier to deliver affordable medicine to developing countries. It passed the House of Commons on March 9, but stalled in the Senate, and then died on the order paper when the government fell.
When Parliament resumes June 2 there will be numerous pleas for the attention of Stephen Harper’s majority government. But this is more than a plea. Finally passing this bill is a moral imperative, and research released since its initial passing has made it an urgent one.
A few weeks ago, a major clinical trial found that treating HIV-positive people with ARVs led to 96 per cent reduction of transmission for the 1,763 participating couples in 13 sites all over the world, including Kenya. The breakthrough was so great that results were released four years earlier than scheduled.
“We have a new vaccine and it’s called treatment,” Dr. Jennifer Cohn from Medecins Sans Frontieres, a medical relief organization with offices in Kenya, recently told the Nairobi Star. Advocacy organizations also predicted the virus could be eradicated in Kenya in just a few years.
Kenya is our second home—we’ve spent the past 15 summers there. We love the untouched beauty of its landscapes and the warmth of its people, but we’re sick with the knowledge that AIDS devastates the country.
Mary* was a nurse in Kenya’s Rift Valley. She knew her husband had been unfaithful, and that she was in danger. But he refused to wear condoms—he’d paid her dowry, she was his property. When Mary was diagnosed with HIV, her husband abandoned her while she was pregnant with their second child. Women are more likely to be identified as carriers because of prenatal testing. Abby* was born HIV-positive.
Mary couldn’t afford proper treatment. When she died, none of her close relatives would adopt Abby for fear of “catching” the virus. The now two-year-old has little hope of receiving the medicine she desperately needs to survive.
Canadian pharmaceutical company Apotex Inc. has promised to make a generic duplicate of a paediatric ARV should bill C-393 pass. Dr. James Orbinski, founder of the medical humanitarian organization Dignitas International and staunch supporter of C-393, has said this alone would save millions of lives, since generic drugs reduce treatment costs from $10,000 to $100 a year—even less for children, like Abby.
We wonder how many people were infected while Canada’s unelected Senate stalled a bill that passed in the House of Commons with a vote 172 to 111—including support from the Bloc and NDP, all but two Liberals and a handful of Conservatives.
But not a single Conservative cabinet minister supported the bill, and brand-name drug companies, threatened by the prospect of lost business, lobbied against it.
Ideally, competition on the global market would increase with added competition from generic companies better able to compete on price, driving costs down for poor people dying preventable deaths. This is a humanitarian aid bill meant to save lives, not money.
After years battling opposition and regulatory quirks in the House, only to be stalled to death in the Senate, Bill C-393 isn’t guaranteed a swift pass through this Parliament.
Canada’s political landscape has changed. The NDP say they will reintroduce the private member’s bill that was first passed in the minority Parliament.
Canada has two choices.
The Conservative government could bolster the country’s reputation on the world stage at no cost to taxpayers. In fact, passing the bill would make Canada’s foreign aid dollars go further because we, and developing countries, could purchase more medicine for less.
Or, our government could fail to act, leaving countless people to die needless deaths.
*names have been changed to protect privacy.
Marc and Craig Kielburger are children’s rights activists and co-founded Free The Children, which is active in the developing world. Their column appears Mondays online at thestar.com/globalvoices.