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CDC HIV/AIDS/Viral Hepatitis/STD/TB Prevention News Update
Pregnant Women Have No Right to Access Key AIDS Drug, Says
Dina Kraft
November 28, 2001
Associated Press (11.28.01) - Wednesday, November 28, 2001

A pregnant HIV-positive woman has no inherent right to a key AIDS drug that could save her baby from the deadly disease, lawyers for the South African government argued Tuesday. AIDS activists and pediatricians have sued the state in a bid to force it to make the drug nevirapine available to HIV-positive expectant mothers countrywide. The German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim has offered nevirapine free to developing countries, but South Africa has yet to accept the offer, although it is testing the drug at 18 pilot sites. "There is a right to health care services, there is no right to nevirapine," attorney Moene Moerane said in summing up the government's argument on the second and final day of the lawsuit in the Pretoria High Court.

About 200 babies are born HIV-positive every day in South Africa, and studies show nevirapine can reduce the transmission of the virus from mother to child during labor by up to 50 percent. However, the government argues that the drug's safety remains unproven, and inadequate backup systems are in place to administer it. In addition, Moerane said the state did not have enough money to ensure the treatment was adequately followed up and so was not yet ready to make nevirapine available to all hospitals and clinics. "The [state] cannot solve South Africa's woes overnight," he said. Moerane also argued that the issuing of AIDS drugs was a government policy matter and the legal system did not have a right to intervene.

AIDS activists' lawyers argued that the government's policy was irrational and arbitrary and that it was deciding whether newborn children would live or die. Mark Heywood, secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, which filed the lawsuit, called the government "shameful" and said it was infringing on the rights of 90 percent of the country's pregnant HIV-positive women who currently do not have access to nevirapine. A judgment is expected by the end of December.

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