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 treatment.

"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 the drug.

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.