12/05/2012 05:07 EST | Updated 02/04/2013 05:12 EST

How Grandmothers Are Helping the AIDS Epidemic


Getting to zero ought to be easy. We now know, unequivocally, that when HIV positive people are receiving appropriate levels of anti-retroviral therapy, they will not transmit the virus. Treatment as prevention: In one broad stroke we can both manage the disease in individuals, minimizing its impact on their lives, and end the pandemic. How simple, how easy, how compelling a solution that is!

One can only wish! Getting to zero is like a complex jig-saw puzzle, with multiple sections to be put together and placed before it can be solved. There are many pieces to the section called Treatment as Prevention, some of them connected with social programming and human rights, but until the medicines are reliably, affordably and universally available, the rest is academic.

Access to medicines is problematic in the places where the pandemic is strongest. In sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than half of the people who need them have access to treatment medications. Children are still being born HIV positive. And their parents are still dying of the disease, leaving them to be raised by their aging and grieving grandmothers. These strong, resourceful women are literally saving the continent.

This is where GRAN comes in. Our mission is to advocate in meaningful and strategic ways for the grandmothers of sub-Saharan Africa and the children in their care, orphaned by AIDS. The Grandmothers Advocacy Network has been working on the Access to Medicines issue for six years now. In Canada, we have an Access to Medicines Regime which was designed to take advantage of some World Trade Organization rulings allowing us to bypass patent laws and allow generic companies to produce some of the newer medicines when they are needed by countries having public health issues.

AIDS is certainly a public health issue in sub-Saharan African countries. We should be able to fit this piece of the puzzle into place.

Unfortunately not. In the eight years since the regime became law, it has only been used once. Canada's Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR) is deeply flawed. It lays out a cumbersome protocol that is a disincentive to both Canada's generic drug companies and to the countries attempting to get good medicines for their people.

So, GRAN has been campaigning to fix CAMR. We've advocated in MPs offices, in their home ridings (we have active GRANs in most communities across the country), in the newspapers and in the social media --yes, grandmothers do tweet.

We've had success and disappointment. A private members bill passed through the house of Commons last year, with extremely encouraging all party support, but died in the Senate before it could come to a vote because of an election call. Grandmothers don't give up, we keep trying.

Yet another MP (the fourth because the last bill was sponsored by three different MPs) presented a new version of the bill in this last session of parliament. Unfortunately, just two days before World AIDS Day, it was defeated at second reading, by a scant 7 votes. This means the bill can go no further and Canada's opportunity to place another piece in the puzzle is, at best, delayed.

But, as I mentioned earlier, Grandmothers don't give up. GRAN will still be there, working towards getting to zero, towards the end of AIDS, because until then the women of sub-Saharan Africa will continue to lose their adult children and be left to raise children orphaned and made vulnerable by AIDS.

Canadian GRANadvocates will continue fighting for access to medicines, as well as for appropriate levels of development assistance. We'll be writing letters, sending postcards, talking to policy makers, holding media events, doing everything in our considerable power to make certain that the grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa can do the wonderful job that they do with appropriate tools, including the medicines that will bring an end to the AIDS pandemic that has scourged their communities. There is even more to be done of course. We've learned that vaccines are starting to look promising again. As long as the grandmothers in sub-Saharan Africa face incredible obstacles to raising the vulnerable children of the continent, we will be there to advocate for legislation that will help.

If you'd like to help send us an email at Visit our website at , follow us on twitter @GRANadvocates.