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UA News

AIDS activists, doctors seek AIDS drug distribution in South Africa


Wednesday August 22, 2001 |

Associated Press

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - With hundreds of South African babies born with HIV every day, AIDS activists and doctors sued the government yesterday, demanding it distribute a key AIDS drug that could slash that number in half.

By refusing to make the AIDS drug nevirapine widely available to HIV-infected pregnant women, the government is denying women and children their constitutional rights to health care, the suit filed in the Pretoria High Court claimed.

The government said it was waiting to see details of the lawsuit before commenting but reiterated its policy of distributing nevirapine on a small scale through pilot programs to test its effects.

The suit represented a new strategy for the Treatment Action Campaign, which is one of the country's top AIDS organizations and has been pressing the government for four years to provide medication to prevent transmission of HIV during childbirth.

It was the first major legal challenge aimed at forcing a change in policy on AIDS medication - and it hinged on the constitution's specific guarantees of a right to health care, reproductive rights and health care for children.

In the past, courts have taken a mixed stance on forcing the government on such rights, sometimes backing guarantees but also recognizing financial restraints on implementing them.

The German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim has offered nevirapine free to developing countries for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, however South Africa has yet to accept the offer.

"We have come to the point where legal action to try to enforce the rights of doctors to prescribe nevirapine, of pregnant women to receive nevirapine, rights to dignity and a range of other rights has become inevitable," Mark Heywood, secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, said.

The suit also demands the government develop a national policy on mother-to-child transmission, including providing voluntary testing at prenatal clinics and giving infected mothers infant formula to prevent transmission through breast milk.

"The government has been stalling for too long," said Dr. Haroon Saloojee of the Save Our Babies Campaign, a coalition of pediatric health care workers that is also part of the suit.

An estimated 4.7 million South Africans, about 11 percent of the population, are infected with HIV. About a quarter of babies born to HIV-infected women will become infected during childbirth, according to studies. A single dose of nevirapine to the mother during childbirth followed by a dose to the baby within three days can reduce the transmission rate to about 13 percent.

A widespread nevirapine program that could save 20,000 babies a year would cost less than $30 million, the Treatment Action Campaign said.

The Health Ministry said in a statement that it would take legal advice on the suit. But it pointed to two pilot programs recently announced by the government in each of the country's nine provinces to monitor the effect of the nevirapine treatment.

The pilot projects were being used to explore "operational challenges" in the program before it could be expanded, the ministry said. Health Minister Manto Tshabala-Msimang has previously said the drug had to be administered in a research setting to explore the possibility the treatment could create a new strain of the virus resistant to nevirapine.

The Treatment Action Campaign, however, said no new research was needed, pointing to an October report from the World Health Organization recommending the use of AIDS drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission.


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