12/19/2012 04:43 EST | Updated 02/17/2013 05:12 EST

UNICEF Calls Out MPs For Defeating Generic Drugs Bill


A report by UNICEF takes aim at MPs for stopping a bill that could have meant cheaper drugs to treat HIV and AIDS in poor countries.

The report lists the most underreported stories about children's health around the world, including illnesses like malaria and diarrhea, injury and undernutrition. But it also makes a point of mentioning HIV and AIDS, and the recently defeated private member's Bill C-398 that could have meant better access to antiretroviral medications.

"We think it certainly was a lost opportunity and that there was some misunderstanding that went around," said David Morley, president of UNICEF Canada.

"Some members were thinking, oh we might be violating the World Trade Organization, which was not the case, that we might be allowing substandard medicine to go on the world market, which was not the case."

The bill would have made it easier to manufacture and export pharmaceutical products to address public health problems afflicting many developing and less developed countries, especially those resulting from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other epidemics.

More than two million children around the world need antiretroviral drugs, but only 28 per cent have access to them, according to the report under the subject heading "When Parliament voted down Bill C-398, it was children who lost."

Pregnant HIV-positive women can transmit the virus to their babies, but that can be prevented if the mother is given medicine. Only half the 1.5 million babies born to HIV-positive mothers get the drugs. More than 530,000 children contract HIV every year, most from their mothers, UNICEF says.

Opportunity to support G8 pledge

New Democrat MP and former diplomat Hélène Laverdière brought forward C-398 after another version barely missed becoming law ahead of the last federal election. That bill had the support of a number of Conservative MPs, but not all of those MPs voted for the bill last month when it was defeated at second reading.

Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau, who voted in favour of the last bill, was in the House earlier in the day but wasn't there for the vote. Conservative MP Dean Allison, who chairs the foreign affairs committee and had also voted in favour of the last bill, voted against C-398.

C-398 was defeated 148 to 141.

Morley says passing C-398 would have fit well with Canada's commitment to maternal, newborn and child health, outlined at the 2010 G8 summit in Muskoka, Ont., and heavily promoted by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"It was very disappointing to us. It could have been an opportunity, I believe, for us as a country to show some strong support, frankly, for the Muskoka Initiative. It would have been a ... no-cost way to follow up on some of the promises made at the summit a few years ago," he said.

Preventable killers

The UNICEF report lists 10 preventable killers of children in developing countries:

- Meningitis.

- Injury.

- Pre-term birth complications.

- Malaria.

- Undernutrition.

- Tetanus.

- HIV and AIDS.

- Birth asphyxia.

- Diarrhea.

- Pneumonia.

The report says 19,000 children die every day from preventable causes, down from 33,000 about 20 years ago.

Tetanus is one of the more preventable causes of death on the list and could be eliminated around the world for about $110 million, Morley said. It kills one child every nine minutes.

The UNICEF Canada team also discovered drowning is a major problem in Asia, where 95 per cent of child drowning deaths happen. Drowning rates are 90 per cent lower among children who learn to swim in a UNICEF program, according to the report.

Morley says the purpose of the report is as much to encourage Canadians as it is to give them an update on the status of child survival around the world.

"This is UNICEF's core belief that children should not have to die from these preventable causes," he said.

"There's a lot of positive steps forward so people shouldn't give up, nor should they avert their eyes. If we work together as a global community ... then we can make a huge difference in the lives of children."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that the UNICEF report found 19,000 children die every year from preventable causes. The report actually found that 19,000 children die every day from preventable causes.

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