SOUTH AFRICA WAITS ON AIDS DRUG
AP 12 Feb. 2002
Cape Town -- The health minister
maintained Tuesday that South Africa needs more research on
internationally accepted drugs to combat AIDS before
distributing them in public hospitals, defying mounting
pressure to make the drugs more widely available.
Several prominent doctors' organizations have joined AIDS
activists, church groups and trade unions in urging the
South African government to begin distributing the drug
nevirapine in state hospitals countrywide, saying its
refusal was unethical and illogical.
Nevirapine is approved by the World Health Organization,
and studies show it can reduce mother-to-child transmission
of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, by up to 50 percent.
A study last year by the Medical Research Council found
that up to 7 million South Africans could die of AIDS by
2010 unless efforts are stepped up to counter the epidemic.
Last year, the government estimated 4.7 million South
Africans are HIV-positive -- one in nine people.
Speculation has been rife in the local media for several
weeks that the government was set to change its policy and
extend distribution of nevirapine beyond 18 pilot sites.
President Thabo Mbeki had hinted in a state-of-the-nation
address Friday that the number of distribution sites may be
increased, and pledged to step up the fight against the
But on Tuesday, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang
said research from the pilot sites still had to be
evaluated -- a process expected to take several months.
"When you do research, the findings of that research must
inform policy," she said. "You don't put the cart before
The government had committed itself to studying children
who had been given nevirapine at pilot sites until they
were 1 year old. The oldest child is now 8 months old.
"If one has to analyze policy now, it means we really have
not done what we set out to do," the health minister said.
Last year, AIDS activists won a lawsuit compelling the
government to begin distributing nevirapine.
The Cape High Court rejected the government's argument that
infrastructure and counseling programs were inadequate for
the drug to be effectively administered. The government has
appealed the ruling.
Data collected at the research sites reinforced the
government's concerns, Tshabalala-Msimang said.
"While we are still conducting studies on this, (a) rough
estimation is that our public hospitals and clinics spend
approximately $348 million a year in treating illnesses
associated with HIV/AIDS," she said.
The government also plans to double funding for research
into an AIDS vaccine to $1.7 million.