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A group of McGill medical students recently presented a set of suggested amendments to the office of the prime minister, hoping to influence the current momentum in Ottawa regarding issues of global health.
Third-year medical student Faiz Ahmad spent the summer of 2002 at Harvard Medical School working on a paper concerning access to essential medicines. "It focused on the inequality in health care around the world," says Ahmad. The experience galvanized him into action back home. "There was no student movement in Canada addressing access to HIV medications in developing countries."
He soon established the McGill International Health Initiative (MIHI). Their first major effort was the Student-Led Access to HIV Medicines campaign (SLAHM). In May 2003, with the support of more than 15 student unions representing 200,000 students across Canada and the Canadian Federation of Medical Students, a letter was presented to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. "Concern was expressed for the more than 40 million HIV-infected people worldwide and our dismay that very little has been done to make HIV medicines available to the global poor," says Ahmad. "Basically every future doctor in Canada is saying that this country is not doing its part in the fight against HIV/AIDS."
Ninety-five percent of people with AIDS live in developing countries. While these statistics are alarming, what is equally distressing are first world attitudes. "The policy of prevention over treatment has failed. Infection and mortality rates are both up," say current MIHI coordinators Marise Bouchard and Srin Murthy. "Lives have to take precedence over the financial interests of pharmaceutical companies."
With most HIV/AIDS drugs still under patent, medication to treat an AIDS patient is a prohibitively expensive $15,000 (U.S.) per year. The crisis has forced certain countries to take matters into their own hands. "South Africa and Brazil actually manufactured their own generic medications. However, the overly influential U.S. pharmaceutical industry then pressured the U.S. government to take those countries to court," says Bouchard.
A glimmer of hope actually resides within our very borders. "The Doha Declaration, signed in Doha, Qatar, in 2001, states that public health emergencies should come before patent laws," explains Murthy. "If a country declares itself to be in a state of emergency, other countries can bypass the patent laws and start producing generic drugs to assist the country in need."
The world stage is primed for a leader in health care treatment. "We really want to see Canada become the first rich, G7 country take the radical stance needed to fight AIDS," says Ahmad. "If Canada sets an example, other countries will follow suit."
Members of MIHI recently met with representatives from four ministries: Foreign Affairs, Health, Trade and International Co-operation. The response was favourable. "Within a week, it seemed like the word 'treatment' was coming up in a lot of Bill Graham's (Foreign Affairs) speeches," says Bouchard. "Maybe that wasn't wholly our effect, but we kind of hope it was."
"In January, the government will vote on a bill not to limit the diseases for which generic drugs can be produced, nor will they be limited to specific countries," says Ahmad. This addresses what Murthy refers to as "flawed logic." "How many people have to die before an 'emergency' is declared? Medicine should be preventative, before anything else. You need drugs before an emergency actually happens."