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World waits for Tory AIDS pledge

13-Oct-2006: International heavyweights in the fight against AIDS — from the World Health Organization to the Global Fund — are still waiting to hear whether Canada will continue to support programs that deliver drugs to millions of people in the developing world.

It has been two months since Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government said the International AIDS Conference in Toronto had become too "politicized" a gathering at which to make a funding announcement, but that it would make a financial commitment within a few weeks.

A spokesman for federal Health Minister Tony Clement told the Toronto Star yesterday the announcement is still "forthcoming," but it's not clear when and for what amount.

Stephen Lewis, the United Nations Envoy HIV/AIDS in Africa, met with Canadian International Development Agency officials in Toronto on Aug. 14, the first day of the conference, and they confirmed the federal government would be making a substantial funding announcement.

"What is even more perverse about it is, filled with the righteousness of making an announcement at the time, the government leaked to intended recipients the amounts of money they would likely receive," said Lewis, who wouldn't reveal the numbers.

"Then, out of the blue, all of this was suspended," Lewis said.

According to Lewis, the groups waiting for funding are the International Partnership for Microbicides (IPM), the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the World Health Organization (WHO).

All four of the European countries in the G8 have outlined plans on how they'll increase their foreign aid to 0.7 per cent of their national output by 2015. Canada, which has endorsed the goal, has yet to set a timetable, Lewis said.

Canada's reputation in the global fight against AIDS would have soared if the government had taken the initiative at the AIDS conference, Lewis added.

"I don't understand the retreat," he said. "I sat down with the CIDA minister (International Co-operation Minister Josée Verner) on that morning of Aug. 14; we met privately as she talked about what they intended to do. They felt quite comfortable talking to me about it because in two hours they were going to have a press conference."

That press conference was cancelled at the last minute and it was never rescheduled.

Representatives from both the WHO in Geneva and the IPM in Washington, D.C., remain confident that Canada will come through.

Under the former Liberal government, Canada contributed $100 million to the World Health Organization to kick-start the "3 by 5" program, intended to bring life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs to 3 million people by 2005. While WHO didn't meet the target, they got treatment to more than one million people.

"The WHO was hoping to receive from Canada another instalment to allow it to keep going on this front. They knew the instalment would be less than $100 million; they hoped it would be around $50 million," said Lewis, who added that Canada's initial donation compelled other nations to donate to the cause. "Now, no one knows what to expect and this is a program that drives treatment from country to country."

And the Global Fund, which has $5.5 billion worth of programs and interventions running in 132 nations, was hoping for another $50 or $60 million. It's about $300 million short of its 2006 goal, which means some programs won't be approved, said Lewis.

Some in the Canadian AIDS community speculate the federal government could make an announcement on or around Dec. 1, World AIDS Day.

At the AIDS conference, Clement did promise to launch a full review to examine why Canada failed to deliver on a pledge to get low-cost AIDS drugs to countries in need.

Two years ago, Parliament passed a law to access generic medicine for developing nations — medicine that could be used to fight AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, illnesses responsible for the deaths of millions each year in the developing world.

However, the legislation, known first as the Jean Chrétien Pledge to Africa Act, was mired in bureaucracy and rules. That bill, now called the Access to Medicines Regime, has not delivered one pill to a poor nation and health-care critics feel a chance to save millions of lives has passed.

AIDS advocacy groups are now calling on Clement to streamline the process by amending the law. Richard Elliott, of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, said they've been told by government officials that a consultation paper will circulate among stakeholders such as the generic and brand name pharmaceutical firms, AIDS groups and non-governmental organizations like Doctors Without Borders. "They need to put in place a different process," said Elliott. "They tried the one everyone agreed to and it doesn't work."

Source: Toronto Star

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