By Silvia Aloisi

Reuters 27 March 2002

Johannesburg -- South Africa's government is to appeal for a second time against a court ruling saying it must provide a key anti-AIDS drug that cuts the risk of mother-to-child infection, the health minister said on Wednesday.

The latest legal twist drew fresh condemnation from anti-AIDS campaigners, who accuse the government of deliberately hampering efforts to fight AIDS in South Africa -- the country with the biggest number of people infected in the world.

Nevirapine has been shown to cut by up to 50 percent the risk that pregnant women will pass the deadly virus to their babies, but the government has so far prohibited its use beyond a pilot programme, saying it is expensive and toxic.

"Our legal representatives are today filing papers with the Constitutional Court..." said minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

"We have also indicated that the matter should be treated as a matter of urgency," she said in a statement.

The government had already appealed to the Constitutional Court against a December ruling by the Pretoria High Court saying it had a constitutional duty to widen access to Nevirapine.

That appeal is due to be heard on May 2-3 but the Pretoria court ruled on March 11 and again on Monday that the government should give Nevirapine to HIV-infected pregnant women until its main appeal to the Constitutional Court is heard.

The government is now trying once again to suspend that execution order with a second appeal to the Constitutional Court, the country's highest court.

"I would like to emphasise that we have no intention of circumventing the courts or simply delaying matters by endless litigation," the minister said.

"We stand ready to abide by the final decision of the courts on the execution order."

Anti-AIDS campaigners slammed the new legal challenge.


"The effect of the announcement is an appeal on an appeal on an appeal. We are involved in endless litigation and that has the consequence of denying a life-saving medicine to mothers and children," said Mark Heywood, spokesman for the group that launched the original court action -- Treatment Action Campaign.

South Africa has the highest number of people in the world living with HIV/AIDS, with an estimated one in nine South Africans infected -- around five million people -- and 70,000 to 100,000 babies born HIV-positive each year.

However, the government has refused to make antiretroviral drugs widely available on cost and safety grounds, and President Thabo Mbeki has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS.

Tshabalala-Msimang said in her statement she was appointing a task team to "guide and support the further development of the programme on mother-to-child transmission of HIV within norms and standards that have been endorsed by all provinces."

She gave no further details and ministry officials said the precise role of the task team had yet to be specified.