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Canadians Join Call for Global AIDS Strategy
Canada offers to drop drug barriers, host 2006 conference

Red ribbon envelopes Durban City Hall
WORDS and actions this week by Canadians have been consistent with the call from Nelson Mandela and others for a unified approach to combating the AIDS pandemic.

On Wednesday Canada's Minister of International Co-operation Maria Minna said the country would support the suspension of international drug patent agreements to make generic drugs more accessible to developing countries, especially in cases of emergencies.  Minna made the remarks during the thirteenth International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

Added the minister to a gathering of Canadians, "HIV is a fundamental threat to human security in countries around the world - and will be the most disastrous force humankind has witnessed in centuries - if we do not act now.  [The drug companies] ... have to understand that expensive and inaccessible drugs are meaningless to the people who need them most."

Bruce Waring of the Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development in Ottawa agreed with her statement.

"HIV and AIDS in developing countries must be addressed through poverty alleviation, adequate health care, nutrition and access to treatments," said Waring.  "These issues are inextricably linked and it is the responsibility of Canadians to work at home and abroad to ensure that we are part of the solution in the struggle against HIV and AIDS."

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A Canadian manufacturer of generic versions of pharmaceuticals issued a statement Thursday saying it would be prepared to make AIDS drugs available at cost if the Canadian government lifted the 20-year patents on brand-name medications.

"If Canada is willing to take the lead in this fight, Apotex will dedicate its chemical plants and pharmaceutical factories to the cause," said company president Jack Kay.

"The Apotex group is prepared to provide these treatments for use in the countries that desperately need them at cost.  This is clearly an international emergency and those of us that can help, must," he added.  "We encourage the federal government to immediately use its powers under the Patent Act to grant the licenses that are required to save people who are dying needlessly."

Back in Durban, activists condemned what they see as profiteering by the multinational pharmaceuticals.

"They should stop making money with our lives," stated Andy, an HIV-positive Canadian delegate, in a display of bitterness frequently observed by reporters this week.

"The money these manufacturers are making in North America and Europe is enough for them to give away the drug treatments to the Third World," he continued.  "It just makes you wonder about the sincerity of the drug manufacturers."

And Montreal-based HIV specialist Mark Wainberg emphasized governments' role in ensuring access to HIV/AIDS programs worldwide as well as in sounding the battle call.

"All of us who came here are putting pressure on the governments of the world to ante up the money to pay for drug and prevention programs that are so needed," said Dr. Wainberg, whose term as president of the International AIDS Society came to an end at the conference.  "I hope people won't go back to life as usual.  This can't be the end of it.  It has to be the beginning."

Added Dr. Ronald Valdiserri, Deputy AIDS Chief at the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, "This meeting has really underscored the need for global solidarity on HIV/AIDS.  It is the first conference in which I have perceived such a compelling sense of urgency."

That country moved on increased spending for the AIDS pandemic this week as well.  The US House of Representatives voted Thursday to increase by $42 million funding for an overseas child survival and disease program related to HIV/AIDS, bringing total funding to $244 million.

But the move - as well as current efforts by Europe and the United Nations - was called a "paltry response" to the epidemic by the US government's own top HIV scientist.

At its current $100-million-to-$200 million level, US government funding of HIV/AIDS control programs worldwide "needs to be increased ten- to fifteen-fold," Dr. Neal Nathanson, Director of the Office of AIDS Research in the National Institutes of Health, told his audience.

He said that an annual US commitment to international HIV prevention ought to be $10 billion.

For its part, Canada this week pledged new money in the form of $1-million to the Nelson Mandela Children's Fund and $350,000 to other Canadian-African partnerships and projects.  The spending compliments Canada's commitment of $120-million over three years, made at the end of May.  The United States announced a pledge of $5-million to the Children's Fund this week as well.


But amid the numerous announcements of new spending and commitments in Durban were reminders that the totals pledged were simply not enough.  And although estimates vary from $3-billion to $60-billion regarding the amount of money required to take effective action in Africa, the issues of priorities, politics, and - especially - perception remained.

Contextually speaking, organizations worldwide spent an estimated $250-billion on Y2K compliance over a 4-year period.

But the 'year 200 bug' was presented as a threat, as opposed to an issue, and one with the potential to impact every individual.

The importance of perception arose during a conference session on media portrayal of AIDS.

"Definitions matter," said Mark Schoofs to session attendees.  Schoofs, a reporter with New York's The Village Voice, won a Pulitzer Prize Award last year for his coverage of AIDS in Africa.

"The definition determines the solution," continued Schoofs.  "If we define AIDS as a virus, then the solution is condoms or drugs.  But this denies the role that poverty plays.

"In 1995, less than 10% of the US budget for AIDS was committed to vaccine research.  Why?  If we define an AIDS vaccine as impossible, then why bother?  Definitions matter."

Toronto in 2006

Delegates in Durban expressed little opposition to the planned hosting by Toronto of the International AIDS Conference in 2006.  Canadian activists feared that it would be controversial due to being the third time Canada hosts the event.

But Elvis Sammy Addae, a social worker from Ghana, told CP, "The conference has one aim - to bring HIV/AIDS awareness to the people.  When that aim is met, it doesn't matter where it is held.

"Once it was held in Africa, I don't have anything against the meeting being held elsewhere," he added. "I'd like to see it held in Africa again, maybe in North or West Africa."

Douglas Connors of Ottawa agreed that getting the message of HIV/AIDS across is the most important goal.  "There aren't many places in Africa that could hold this conference," he said.

And Dr. Wainberg of Montreal, who is chairman of the Toronto organizing committee, said there was some initial concern from developing countries when the city was selected, but most of the early critics now accept the choice.

The 2002 conference is scheduled for Barcelona, Spain.  In the interim the International AIDS Society is planning a 2001 meeting in Buenos Aires.