Reuters 22 March 2002

London -- Top South African scientists urged their government on Friday to end its opposition to the use of drugs that help prevent pregnant women from passing on the killer HIV virus to their babies.

Every year around 100,000 children are born with HIV in South Africa and scientists believe the problem is made worse by the controversial stance of South African President Thabo Mbeki towards the condition.

The doctors, writing in the medical journal The Lancet, said that as many as half of the cases of children being born infected with HIV could be avoided if short courses of antiretroviral drugs were used.

"In a developing country such as South Africa, the few opportunities for controlling HIV spread need to be maximised," said Salim Abdool Karim of the University of Natal.

"There is a moral and public health imperative to provide cost-effective interventions of known efficacy."

His sentiments were echoed by two other Natal university professors and two other researchers from universities in Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Mbeki has been slammed at home and abroad for questioning the link between AIDS and HIV, the virus that causes it. He has also argued against using antiretrovirals in state hospitals on the grounds they are too expensive and as dangerous as the disease they are trying to tackle.

His government refuses to expand access to nevirapine, which can block mother-to-child transmission of AIDS, to state hospitals beyond a handful of pilot studies.

Nevirapine is registered by the country's top medical authority for use in preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission. Its German manufacturer Boehringer Ingelheim has offered it to the South African government free of charge for five years.

Mbeki's ruling African National Congress (ANC) this week condemned a court ruling compelling the government to provide nevirapine to women in childbirth, saying it "defies logic."

South Africa has the largest number of people in the world living with HIV and AIDS, with an estimated one in nine South Africans infected--around five million people.