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Canada’s MPs have chance to help save millions of young lives

This year World AIDS Day observes its twenty-fifth birthday, but tens of thousands of children worldwide will not live to see their second. Fortunately, with Bill C-398, now under debate in the House of Commons, Canada has the opportunity to address this tragic situation.

Every day people in low-income countries are dying from diseases people in rich countries like Canada have found ways to treat. One of the main reasons is the high cost of medication.

It's unacceptable that less than half of the estimated 1.5 million infants born to mothers with HIV every year don't receive the treatment needed to protect them from the disease.

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It is equally unacceptable that less than a quarter of the two million children living with HIV have access to life saving antiretrovirals (ARVs).

The Canadian government has been a global leader in improving the health of vulnerable mothers and children around the world – particularly with the $7.3-billion Canadian-led Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.

This initiative has saved lives by providing better quality health care in countries like Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Haiti.

Now Canada can strengthen this leadership by supporting Bill C-398 to reform Canada's Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) and help all children – regardless of how poor, vulnerable or far away they are – access life-saving medicines.

Back in 2004 the World Trade Organization (WTO) decided patent rules should not block access to affordable medicines for people living in poor countries, and Canada took action.

Parliament voted unanimously to create CAMR to allow export of lower-cost, generic medicines to the world's most vulnerable people to address diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria.

But CAMR was soon tangled in red tape. Since being introduced it has only been used once to export one shipment of one drug to one country, Rwanda, in 2007. That is just not good enough.

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The difficult experience of using CAMR has deterred all further use of the system, and unless reformed, CAMR will fade into complete disuse.

In the last Parliament, CAMR came close to being fixed when Members of Parliament from every party in the House came together to pass a previous iteration of Bill C-398. Unfortunately, that earlier bill was stalled in the Senate and died when the federal election was called.

On Nov. 28, MPs have the opportunity to get the job done.

How wonderful to think we could be well on our way to saving millions of children's lives without any additional costs to taxpayers or the Canadian government.

While we hope enough MPs will support the passage of this bill, it is important to address some blatant misrepresentations being circulated.

For example, it is simply false to suggest the bill will remove existing safeguards against medicines, putting them at risk of being diverted and illegally resold. Bill C-398 will not touch any of the already sturdy safeguards in place to minimize this risk.

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Nor does it do anything to threaten the quality of the medicines being supplied. Under the Food and Drugs Act, Health Canada must review any medicines being exported under CAMR. The new amendments do not change this.

Finally, it is simply incorrect to claim Bill C-398's reforms to CAMR will violate Canada's obligations under the WTO patent rules. The proposed reforms comply and even incorporate the language of these rules. Leading international legal experts have testified to this before Parliament.

What the new amendments will do is ensure brand-name drug companies continue to receive royalties for their intellectual property, while providing a simple, streamlined solution for developing country governments that want to use CAMR.

At the same time, Canadian generic manufacturers will be able to compete in the global market and millions of people desperate for medicines – including a disproportionate number of children – will have better, more equitable access.

There is no better time than World AIDS Day for our elected representatives to strengthen their efforts against this devastating pandemic. By supporting Bill C-398, MPs have an incredible chance to save millions of young lives around the world.

David Morley is President and CEO of Unicef Canada and Richard Elliott is Executive Director of Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network.

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