SOUTH AFRICAN ACTIVISTS WIN AIDS DRUG CASE
By Steven Swindells
Reuters 14 Dec. 2001
Johannesburg -- South African activists won an important
court ruling Friday in their campaign to force a reluctant government
to help HIV -positive pregnant women save their
babies from AIDS.
Pretoria High Court Judge Chris Botha ruled that the government was
obliged to provide the AIDS drug nevirapine to pregnant women.
The government is expected to appeal the 70-page ruling before the
country's Supreme Court.
The AIDS activist group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), backed by
doctors, had launched the court action, arguing the government had a
duty to offer nevirapine under the constitutional right to health
"This is a very important victory, a great step forward. The judge
granted everything that the TAC sought, he ordered that nevirapine be
made available at health facilities across the country,'' TAC
national secretary Mark Heywood told Reuters.
No health ministry officials were available for immediate comment on
the ruling and no government officials were present at the court.
Under the ruling, the health department has to return to court by
March 31 to show how it will roll out the national nevirapine program.
The government has refused to implement such a scheme at public
hospitals and clinics, citing cost and safety concerns surrounding
Between 70,000 and 100,000 babies are born HIV-positive yearly in
South Africa, which has more people living with HIV/AIDS than any
other country in the world, with one in nine of its people estimated
to be HIV-positive.
A dose of nevirapine--a tablet given to the mother during labor and a
teaspoon of syrup to the baby within the first 72 hours of birth--can
cut mother-to-child infection rates by up to 50%.
The government's approach to the epidemic has been mired in
controversy since President Thabo Mbeki questioned the causal link
between HIV and AIDS and said life-prolonging retrovirals were as
toxic as the condition they were meant to treat.
Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim, which makes nevirapine, has offered
the drug free to the government for five years.
"The offer is still there. If the government decides to move forward
we would be happy to supply the product,'' Kevin McKenna, Boehringer
Ingelheim's managing director in South Africa, said.
The South African government won a landmark case against 39 of the
world's biggest drug firms this year that opened the way for Pretoria
to import cheaper versions of AIDS drugs, including antiretrovirals.
But Pretoria has not reached an agreement with drug manufacturers or
suppliers to get cheaper drugs.