11/28/2012 12:35 EST | Updated 01/28/2013 05:12 EST

Affordable Medicine for All the World's Grandchildren


There are approximately 23.5-million people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, but Canadian grandmother Elizabeth Rennie does not see a statistic. Instead she sees Zamma, a 10-year-old South African girl.

In May 2010, 77-year-old Rennie joined 42 other Canadian "grand-women" on a trip to Swaziland organized by the Stephen Lewis Foundation, where more than 500 grandmothers from Africa and Canada sang, danced, hugged and cried together.

But first, Rennie, a member of the Grandmother's Advocacy Network (GRAN), who has eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, visited a health centre outside Johannesburg, South Africa, where she met Zamma.

Zamma was hated and abused by her own family after being infected with HIV by a relative -- until her own grandma rescued her. Her grandmother scraped together the money to pay for the life-saving anti-retroviral drugs to keep the HIV under control.

Rennie, choking up as she described Zamma's plight, is now campaigning from her home in Burlington, Ont., to get legislation passed in Canada that will bring cheaper HIV/AIDS drugs to developing countries and girls like Zamma.

According to the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, without medication one in two children living with HIV/AIDS in the developing world will die before their second birthday. We have an opportunity now to change that.

Eight years ago Canada made a promise to save lives by allowing Canadian companies to produce generic versions of patented medicines like AIDS anti-retroviral drugs for delivery to developing countries -- that promise was a law called the Canadian Access to Medicines Regime (CAMR).

In 2008, Canadian generic drug producer Apotex delivered seven-million pills to Rwanda. The pills combined three medications to create the necessary drug cocktail to keep HIV and AIDS in check. Because it was a generic, the pills cost only 19.5 cents -- two thirds the cost of buying each of the original patented brand-name pills.

That is the only time since it was passed into law, that CAMR has been used to deliver life-saving medicine to those in need in a developing country, because the law made it simply too difficult and expensive to obtain the necessary licenses.

Under CAMR, a generic drug maker must get a new license each and every time it wants to send a new shipment of medicine -- even if it is simply sending a second batch of the exact same drug to the same country.

Elie Betito, Director of Government and Public Affairs for Apotex, tells us that one shipment of medicine to Rwanda in 2008 required negotiations with three different companies. The process took an entire year. If they wanted to send more of the same drug to Rwanda, they'd have to go through it all again. They didn't. Neither did any other companies.

Our promise remains unfulfilled.

But a new piece of legislation before Parliament -- Bill C-398 -- aims to cut the red tape in CAMR by creating a "one license solution." With one license for a specific generic drug, like a combined anti-retroviral cocktail pill, companies like Apotex could produce as much of a life-saving medicine as needed, for any eligible country that needs it.

In 2011, a similar bill to fix CAMR came before Parliament. That legislation passed in the House of Commons with the support of most opposition Members of Parliament and 26 Conservative MPs, but it died in the Senate when the election was called in April 2011.

The new Bill, C-398, faces a crucial vote at Second Reading in the House of Commons on November 28. Richard Elliot, Executive Director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network says the Bill has the unanimous support of opposition parties. Thirteen Conservative MPs have indicated they will support the Bill, however other Conservative MPs have spoken against it in debates, arguing the law will weaken safeguards that prevent the generic medicines produced by Canadian companies from being diverted or illegally resold after they have been shipped to the intended developing nation, and interfere with Canadian trade obligations under the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Elliot counters these assertions and hopes to convince more Conservatives to support the Bill. He argues the proposed law actually strengthens transparency and accountability. A new measure in C-398 requires generic drug companies to publish on the Internet how much of each medicine they produce, and exactly where it was sent. They are adamant that C-398 is completely in line with WTO regulations on intellectual property.

Rennie and GRAN have become the voice of their African counterparts, lobbying MPs with phone calls, emails and personal visits to support Bill C-398 and save the lives of beloved grandchildren around the globe.

You can learn more about providing affordable life-saving drugs for developing countries, and how you can take action in these last critical days before Bill C-398 comes up for vote, at:

Craig and Marc Kielburger are founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in eight cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit