afrol News, 14 December - The South African High Court in Pretoria today in a landmark decision ruled that the government has to provide the AIDS drug Nevirapine to pregnant women, which helps prevent transmission of the HIV virus to their unborn children.
The South African government is "obliged to make Nevirapine available to pregnant women with HIV who give birth in the public health sector", providing their condition allows it, the Pretoria court today ruled.
South African President Thabo Mbeki had led his government in a fight against a legal appeal for low-cost AIDS treatment for pregnant women. Mbeki has been questioning the science of HIV/AIDS and whether drugs really could have an effect on the disease he claims is a product of poverty.
About 4.2 million HIV infected people live in South Africa, constituting over 20 percent of the population. A government survey last year further had found that 25 percent of pregnant women were HIV positive. Nevirapine is successfully given to pregnant HIV-infected women, preventing to transmission to their child.
The case against the government had been brought by the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), a South African group of AIDS activists, to force the government to provide such drugs under the public health care system. TAC especially reacted to the fact that 20,000 South Africans in the private health sector already had access to antiretrovirals.
TAC argued in court that "irrational government policies" threatened the lives of mothers and children. They claimed the government was "violating constitutional rights" including the right to life, dignity and equality by failing to provide enough of the antiretrovirals at affordable prices. TAC held the number of children born with HIV every year could be halved.
Fuelling the South African public health debate even more was an offer by the pharmaceutical multinational Boehringer Ingelheim, the producers of Nevirapine. The company had offered to provide the drug free of charge for five years, but was met with little enthusiasm by Mbeki's government.
Naturally, the activists celebrated the Pretoria ruling, saying they had "made history" today. "The judgment brings hope to potentially tens of thousands of women who have HIV," TAC representative Mark Heywood said.
Also the South African trade union COSATU today celebrates the ruling, congratulating TAC on its victory. "It is a victory for all mothers who are HIV positive," COSATU spokesman Patrick Craven said. "The government must now comply with the judgement and make the drugs available to all those mothers who need them, as quickly as possible," he continued.
The UN agency UNAIDS recently started a campaign to broaden access to antiretroviral drugs by lowering the prices in Africa. In cooperation with drug companies, prices of some antiretroviral drugs have been cut on average by 85% in sub-Saharan Africa in countries. "The challenge now is to improve access to care, including treatments for opportunistic infections and antiretroviral therapy, in the hardest-hit regions of the world," said Dr Tomris Türmen, Executive Director in charge of HIV/AIDS at WHO.
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.
Since then, the government has been widely criticised for not taking advantage of the opportunity for treatment programs that was created when the companies dropped their suit in the face of national and international pressure. Following the April case, Mbeki's government has not started to fund treatment programs on a significant level.