JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A coalition of South African anti-AIDS
groups said Friday it planned legal action to force the
government to provide the drug nevirapine to pregnant women to
prevent them from passing the virus to their babies.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said its hand had been
forced by continual government delays and the refusal to accept
a free offer by Boehringer Ingelheim, the German company that
makes nevirapine under the name Viramune.
"We are definitely going ahead with the action. ... We are
looking at getting the courts to make a ruling in this matter
for the government to provide nevirapine to pregnant women,"
said TAC official Tebo Kekana.
"We are busy filing the papers on the government and then we
will take it from there," he told Reuters.
South Africa has one of the world's fastest growing HIV-AIDS
epidemics with 1,700 new infections daily. Already 4.3 million
people have the virus of a population of 43 million.
Up to 600,000 babies are born worldwide each year with the
virus -- 1,800 a day. Up to 90 percent of these cases are in
the developing world and experts predict that without HIV
drugs, child mortality rates in some African countries will
double by the year 2010.
Drugs such as Glaxo Wellcome's zidovudine, or AZT, have cut the
number of women infecting their unborn children in
industrialized countries, but the treatments are expensive and
difficult to administer in poorer countries. Nevirapine Cheaper
However, South African research presented to the 13th
International AIDS Conference in Durban in July showed that
nevirapine -- which is given to the mother during labor and to
the child within 48 hours of delivery, was just as effective
and much cheaper than AZT.
Boehringer Ingelheim said in July it would provide the drug to
the developing world free for the next five years, but South
African authorities have so far not taken up the offer, arguing
that it lacks the infrastructure to monitor such a program.
The TAC's Kekana disagrees. "Nevirapine doesn't need any new
infrastructure at all," he said. "There are ante-natal clinics
already in operation and it can be administered at all those
clinics. We don't need to set up new services."
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) on Friday
backed the TAC stance, criticizing the government for its
ambivalent attitude on antiviral drugs.
"Where treatment is clearly affordable, for instance in the
case of drugs for mother-to-child transmission, government must
provide it urgently," it said in a document prepared for its
annual congress to be held on Sept. 18.
COSATU president Willie Madisha was later quoted as saying that
the government should end its "scientific speculation" about
the cause of AIDS.
"We believe that indeed HIV causes AIDS and that is not
disputable," the South African Press Association (SAPA) quoted
Madisha as saying in reference to controversy over President
Thabo Mbeki's appointments to an advisory panel of unorthodox
scientists who believe HIV does not cause AIDS.
Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang fueled the debate
further this week when she refused to answer a talk-show host's
question on whether she believed HIV caused AIDS.
"All this talk and debate about the cause of AIDS prevents
people from trying to deal with the problem," Madisha said.