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Parliament votes on critical AIDS bill this week, but will it pass?

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If you had the opportunity to save "hundreds of thousands, maybe millions" of AIDS sufferers in Africa and other poor countries, what would you do? A complete no-brainer, right? Why in the world is it even a question?

The sad answer is that our federal government has this exact opportunity this week, when private member's bill C-398 to enable this very outcome is voted on in the House. But the government has rejected such a bill before and intends to reject it again. Don't ask me why. There's no rational explanation, either of politics or public policy.

But the cause is not yet lost. Everyone agrees the vote on C-398 will be extremely close. Certain Conservative MPs who once courageously broke with their government on the issue are now wavering. It is crucial that they, plus first-time Conservative MPs elected 18 months ago, be made to understand what's at stake here. The consequences of defeat are truly unthinkable.

The issue is really quite simple. Despite great progress made in providing life-saving medicines to many AIDS victims in Africa, millions still can't afford costly brand-name medicines. Back in 2004, the Liberal government introduced a bill, supported unanimously in Parliament, called Canada's Access to Medicine Regime. CAMR was mainly intended to increase the supply to poor countries of affordable Canadian generic versions of expensive patented drugs to combat HIV and AIDS.

Physician James Orbinski, one of Canada's leading experts in international health, believes that CAMR, if functioning properly, could help save "hundreds of thousands if not millions of lives" in Africa and other poor regions. But it has never worked properly. Behind the scenes, Big Pharma used its influence to introduce enough bureaucratic red tape as to make it unworkable. As a result, since 2004, under CAMR just two batches of one generic drug have been shipped to one African country, Rwanda.

When the Conservatives were elected in 2006, new health minister Tony Clement promised to fix CAMR. Clement even boasted that he had consulted Stephen Lewis, then the Special UN Envoy for AIDS in Africa. Mr. Lewis, who has always invested enormous hope in CAMR, assured Mr. Clement that streamlining it was quite simple. What it mostly required was the political will.

For whatever reason, Mr. Clement's bold commitment was soon toast. Last year, in the dying days of the minority parliament, a majority of MPs -- the Opposition parties plus 26 Conservatives -- passed a private member's bill that would make CAMR workable. Mr. Harper, his cabinet and most of his MPs voted against. Still, the export of inexpensive Canadian-made generic AIDS drugs to poor countries finally seemed in sight. But it was not to be. The government arranged for the Conservative-dominated Senate to scuttle the legislation.

Canadian AIDS activists -- and they are a multitude -- refused to give up. The stakes are far too high. And so they're trying again this Wednesday November 28, only days from now, to untie CAMR's tangled knots. On that day, private member's bill C-398, introduced by NDP MP Hélène Laverdière and backed by tens of thousands of Canadians, will be voted upon in Parliament. If it fails to pass, CAMR dies another death, perhaps its last.

Not surprisingly, opponents are spreading false information about the bill, obvious distortions to anyone who knows the file at all. Even Big Pharma is no longer opposed. You'll find both the myths and the facts here. But the real problem may be that the huge coalition supporting the bill are the usual wonderful suspects: health workers, AIDS activists, grannies, NGOs, faith groups. What's missing from its ranks are the kind of people Conservative MPs are known to respect -- the business community. Yet there's concrete evidence that lots of business people care deeply about AIDS. Which brings us back to Stephen Lewis.

Just two weeks ago, an exhilarating concert was held in Toronto to raise funds for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which is dedicated to "working with community-based organizations working to turn the tide of HIV and AIDS in Africa." The evening also celebrated Mr. Lewis' 75th birthday. (The concert will be broadcast on CBC One two nights after the vote on C-398, Nov. 30, which happens to be the eve of World AIDS Day.)

At a gala pre-concert reception, more than a hundred representatives of the corporate world paid a pretty penny to join Mr. Lewis' rather more customary universe, all uniting to sing Happy Birthday Stephen, letting him feel the love. Both CIBC and The Globe and Mail were lead sponsors, with the bank announcing a donation to the SLF of a cool $1-million and Globe and Mail Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse declaring to the throng that probably only Stephen Lewis could bring together such a diverse group.

Well, he now needs them to come together again, this time to press hard for Bill C-398. Of the 26 Conservative MPs who voted for the bill 18 months ago, 25 were re-elected. About half of them are not yet committed to C-398. It's not clear why. What is clear is that both they and the new Conservative MPs need to know that significant players within Corporate Canada care deeply about this issue. Their names and contacts can be found here. They need to be contacted immediately.

The case is simple. By contributing to the Stephen Lewis Foundation, Canadian business people help the SLF to help literally hundreds of thousands of AIDS-afflicted Africans and their families. By passing C-398, they can help hundreds of thousands, maybe millions more. Think what it means if it fails.

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

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