By Wambui Chege

Reuters 20 March 2002

Johannesburg -- South Africa's ruling party condemned on Wednesday a court order compelling the government to provide a key anti-AIDS drug to women in childbirth, saying it "defies logic."

The African National Congress (ANC) said in a 10-page policy statement designed to clarify its policy on the use of drugs to treat HIV/AIDS that courts should not determine health policy.

"We are convinced that it is incorrect for anyone to prescribe a specific drug from the bench, let alone one whose efficacy is still under investigation," ANC spokesman Smuts Ngonyama said.

"Further, it is our view that the order to implement the court judgment pending the constitutional ruling defies logic," he added.

A South African judge last week said the government could appeal against a December court ruling obliging it to expand access to the antiretroviral nevirapine to help prevent HIV-positive women from passing the deadly virus to their babies.

But the judge ruled the government must provide nevirapine to any woman who wants it while its appeal to the Constitutional Court was pending.

The ANC also ruled out expanding existing pilot studies to allow all HIV-positive pregnant women access to nevirapine, citing safety and cost reasons.

And it said victims of rape would not be given antiretrovirals at state hospitals because the efficacy of the drugs had not been proved.

"We shall not be stampeded into precipitate action by pseudo-science, an uncaring drive for profits or an opportunistic clamour for cheap popularity," Ngonyama said.

Nevirapine is registered by the country's top medical authority for use in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission.

International research shows a dose of nevirapine cuts infection by up to 50%. An estimated 70,000 to 100,000 babies are born HIV-positive every year in the country, where one in nine people are said to carry the virus that causes AIDS.

President Thabo Mbeki has been criticised at home and abroad for questioning widely held findings about the disease, including whether HIV causes AIDS.

The ANC's comments drew fire from the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), which said the government did not care about ordinary South Africans.

"The continued refusal to roll out an antiretroviral programme has dashed the hope of many HIV-positive people as well as the 200 babies born HIV-positive every day," DA official Sandy Kalyan said in a statement.