Students from around the world gathered at the eighth annual Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM) conference, held on Nov. 14 and 15 at the Yale School of Medicine, to discuss how to distribute medicines to poor countries. While students acknowledged that many institutions have become aware of medical access issues, there are still many political roadblocks.

“I’m hoping to get a day when there is an actual commitment to global and public health,” said AIDS activist Eric Sawyer, a keynote speaker at the conference. “It is essential to allow people to have healthy lives. We must view [drug] access as a universal human right.”

At the conference, students praised a commitment made Nov. 9 by Yale and five other universities to encourage drug companies to provide cheaper access to medicine in developing countries. The UAEM worked with administrators at these universities to craft the statement.

“We had a great victory,” said Ethan Guillen, the executive director of UAEM. “Administrators that put the policy together deserve much recognition and praise.”

Students also discussed how to combat the Eshoo-Barton amendment to the health care reform bill, which will increase the length of time a drug patent is in effect. Attendee Sara Crager MED ’12 said the amendment would stifle medical research because drug companies could change medicines slightly and place a new patent on the drugs. That would lead to fewer generic drugs, she added.

The conference concluded with speeches by Sawyer and fellow AIDS activist Gregg Gonsalves, a student in the Eli Whitney program, a degree program for non-traditional students. Gonsalves said the administration of George W. Bush ’68 had increased awareness of AIDS and tuberculosis across the globe. In 2003, Bush created the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, an organization combating HIV/AIDS across the globe.

Sawyer and Gonsalves said they were worried that the health care reform bill would undermine the progress made by the Bush administration. Sawyer asked people to petition their congressmen to change the bill.

“People with AIDS need you, need your energy and activism,” Sawyer said. “Find a way to get involved to make state-of-the art medication available to everyone.”

The UAEM was founded at Yale in 2001 after the University pressured Bristol-Myers Squibb to make their AIDS medications more affordable for people in South Africa. Since then, the UAEM has worked with other non-governmental institutions to influence the global health policy of the World Health Organization. It has also called for drug companies to provide cervical cancer vaccine and other cancer treatments to developing countries.

According to the UAEM Web site, the student-run organization now includes chapters at 50 research institutions worldwide on five continents.