By Steven Swindells

Reuters 19 Oct. 2001

Johannesburg -- A six-month-old baby who contracted HIV from her mother is suing South African authorities for failing to prevent it, lawyers and health officials said on Friday.

Lawyers acting on instructions from baby Tinashe's 19-year-old mother -- the family name was not made public -- have demanded a provincial health executive pay 700,000 rand ($76,000 US) in damages for negligence.

The suit is being conducted in the baby's name, a precedent allowed under South African law.

"This child faces a very bleak future unless we win this case. The mother is unemployed, and without help the child will die when she is about 5 years old,'' family lawyer Richard Spoor told Reuters.

Spoor alleged that health workers had been negligent in not advising the mother on how HIV would impact on her pregnancy and that a key antiretroviral drug, nevirapine, was available in the private sector that would have cut the risks.

"The health authorities and doctors have a duty to care for pregnant women. Their conduct was unlawful, they are liable,'' Spoor said, adding Tinashe's grandmother had told doctors that the mother was HIV- positive. Sibongile Manana, health minister for Mpumalanga province, had received the damages claim and was studying it, a ministerial spokesman said.

Important Precedent?

Legal sources said the claim could set an important precedent for thousands of women who had already transmitted HIV to their babies.

More than 150 children are born with HIV every day in South Africa, which has been hard hit by the global AIDS epidemic.

South Africa's biggest AIDS activist group, the Treatment Action Campaign, is set to clash with the government in court later this year over Pretoria's refusal to dispense nevirapine through the public health system.

The court cases are likely to throw the spotlight on the government's controversial stance on AIDS, which includes ruling out the use of life-prolonging antiretroviral drugs on cost and safety grounds.

UN figures show that with one in nine people infected, South Africa-- which has a population of 45 million--has more people living with AIDS or the HIV virus than any other country.

A report issued this week by the country's leading medical body warned that as many as seven million South Africans could die of the disease by 2010 if there was no change in sexual behaviour and treatment offered.

Controversy over the country's fight against AIDS has been fanned by President Thabo Mbeki, who has questioned the causal link between HIV and AIDS.

Key AIDS drugs are extremely scarce in public hospitals and the health system is badly overstretched because of the pandemic. Pretoria has set up a limited number of trial sites using nevirapine, a product of the German firm Boehringer-Ingelheim, but has still not committed itself to a program of dispensing it or other antiretrovirals in national public hospitals.

Nevirapine, taken by a mother during delivery and in syrup form by the baby within 72 hours of birth, is available in the private sector at just 30 rand, or about $3.25 US.