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AIDS Groups Plan Legal Action Against S.Africa Gvt
Emelia Sithole
September 8, 2000
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.