afrol News, 21 November - Several pressure groups now urge South African President President Thabo Mbeki to have his government drop its fight against a legal appeal for low-cost AIDS treatment for pregnant women. About 4.2 million HIV infected live in South Africa.
Today, the US-based group Human Rights Watch appealed to Mbeki's "history of leadership in the country’s struggle for rights and freedoms," urging him to give access to affordable antiretroviral treatment for preganant women.
The South African government is currently in court fighting a case brought by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) of South Africa to ensure HIV-positive women have access to affordable antiretroviral treatment to reduce the risk of transmission of HIV to their newborns.
Releasing a statement on Monday, TAC chairman Zackie Achmat said more than 70 percent of patients at the Red Cross Children's Hospital in Cape Town had HIV-related illnesses. The statement was endorsed by scientists, religious bodies, trade unions and AIDS organisations. TAC is pushing the government to blow off the court battle which is to start next week.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for November 26 in the Pretoria High Court. President Mbeki has at various times denied that the human immunodeficiency virus is the cause of AIDS and has alleged dangers of anti-AIDS drugs that are unproven in clinical science.
- Mbeki should pull the government out of this case and support programs to help newborns start life free of HIV, said Peter Takirambudde, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. "Even in much lower-income African countries, women increasingly have access to this treatment."
South Africa has the largest number of persons living with HIV/AIDS of any country, about 4.2 million, according to United Nations figures. The Medical Research Council of South Africa recently estimated that 7 million persons could die of HIV/AIDS by 2010, mostly young adults in their prime. Although South Africa has resources to provide treatment to a significant number of AIDS sufferers, the government has consistently resisted supporting treatment programs.
According to the TAC statement, the benefits of using anti-retrovirals far outweigh the risks. Already 20,000 South Africans in the private health sector have access to antiretrovirals. As prices came down further, it would become more cost-effective to provide the drugs to all living with HIV/AIDS, the statement added.
Pilot studies conducted in Johannesburg have shown that the drugs can be used productively by poor South Africans, with low levels of toxicity. Last month President Thabo Mbeki said it had been found that antiretroviral drugs were as dangerous as AIDS. He said the government refused to provide antiretrovirals in the public health sector because the drugs were too toxic.
In April 2001, South Africa won a victory against 39 pharmaceutical companies that had sued the government because of the provisions of a 1997 law that would have facilitated the production and importation of generic drugs for HIV/AIDS. The opportunity for treatment programs that was created when the companies dropped their suit in the face of national and international pressure has been left unused by the government, which does not fund treatment programs on a significant level.
- President Mbeki could go a long way to redeeming his mishandling of AIDS by supporting the treatment for mother-to-child transmission, said Takirambudde. "President Mbeki’s questioning of the science of HIV/AIDS and the South African government’s active refusal to support programs of known effectiveness is helping to fuel the AIDS crisis in South Africa." said Takirambudde.
Nonkosi Khumalo, TAC Executive Secretary, told the UN agency PlusNews that the group was planning protest marches in all provinces on the first day of the court case. TAC would announce their plans for national and international mobilisation on Thursday, she said.