Reuters 15 Dec. 2001

Johannesburg -- The South African government said on Saturday it was unperturbed by Friday's court ruling obliging it to expand access to a drug to help HIV-positive pregnant women save their babies from AIDS.

It has also indicated it will not immediately comply with Pretoria High Court Judge Chris Botha's decision compelling the government to roll out a national programme to provide the low-cost AIDS drug nevirapine to expectant mothers.

"It's not a blow to government policy. Our strategic plan talks about prevention as well," Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said on Saturday, without giving more details.

"Our lawyers are studying the documents and the government will make a statement next week," she added.

In a statement issued late on Friday, the health department questioned the government's obligation to comply with the court decision.

"Government is studying the detail of the judgment in order to establish its premise, including such critical issues as the role of the judiciary in relation to executive policy decisions," it said.

Observers say they believe the government will appeal against the decision.

The AIDS activist group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), backed by doctors, launched the court action, arguing that the government had a duty to offer nevirapine under the constitutional right to health treatment.

Between 70,000 and 100,000 babies are born HIV-positive every year in South Africa, which has more people living with HIV-AIDS than any other country in the world. One in nine South Africans are estimated to be HIV-positive.

A dose of nevirapine -- a tablet given to the mother during labour and a teaspoon of syrup to the baby within the first 72 hours of birth -- can cut infection rates by up to 50 percent.

The government also said in its statement, as it has before, that it was committed to extending the drug to all state clinics and hospitals, but would wait for the results of a small nevirapine pilot project it launched earlier this year.

A health department spokesman told Reuters he was not sure when the project would end or when the results would be available.

Under Friday's court ruling, the health department has to return to court by March 31 to show how it will offer a national nevirapine programme, which the government has so far refused to do citing cost and safety concerns about the drug.

Although people are known to experience some side-effects from taking the drug, medical experts say they are limited and that the drug is a life-saver.

Germany's Boehringer Ingelheim, which makes nevirapine, has offered to provide the drug free to South Africa for five years.

The government's approach and commitment to curbing the pandemic has been widely criticised, especially since President Thabo Mbeki questioned whether HIV caused AIDS.