afrol News, 6 July - The Constitutional Court of South Africa has ruled against the government, ordering it to start the immediate distribution of the drug Nevirapine to pregnant HIV-infected women. Nevirapine hinders the mother-to-child transmission of the lethal virus. The large numbers of AIDS campaigners and civil society at large now celebrate the ruling.
The Constitutional Court ruled that; "Government is ordered without delay to remove the restrictions that prevent Nevirapine from being made available for the purpose of reducing the risk of mother-to-child transmission of HIV at public hospitals and clinics that are not research and training sites." The Ministry of Health was totally overruled in its bid for further investigations of Nevirapine.
COSATU, South Africa's leading trade union, "hailed" yesterday's court ruling on the provision of antiretroviral medicines to HIV-positive pregnant women as "an historic breakthrough for South Africa and all its people, especially the poor." Not only would this judgement lead to "many lives being saved," the government-close trade union said, but it had "set a precedent which should make it impossible for any government to ignore the needs of the poor."
Also the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, hailed the court ruling, calling it "a triumph in the battle by South Africans across the country for humane government policies." The party in a statement called on Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang to "stop wasting time and money and get on with the job at hand," meaning she now must start distributing Nevirapine freely at once.
AIDS activists of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) celebrate the ruling as an important victory in their fight to change the South African government's much criticised AIDS policy. TAC has led the complaint against the government and won its case from courtroom to courtroom, now even in the country's highest court.
Health Minister Tshabalala-Msimang has not made any statements on the verdict so far, but she is known to strongly oppose the general distribution of Nevirapine. Patricia Lambert, an adviser to Tshabalala-Msimang, however told the South African Press Association (SAPA) the judgment was "workable." Tshabalala-Msimang and the ruling ANC party are controversially sceptical towards the effect of medicines in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and have demanded home-made proof of the effects of Nevirapine.
International investigations however have demonstrated that over 50 percent of mother-to-child transmissions of HIV are prevented by the drug. Nevirapine is therefore distributed freely in three of South Africa's provinces, also in one ANC-led province (Gauteng). Opposition to the ANC's views on AIDS have become widespread and increasingly harsh during the legal battle between the government and TAC, including dissent within the party.
COSATU, which is a close ally to the ruling party, early presented its dissent to Minister Tshabalala-Msimang's restrictive AIDS drug policy. The trade union therefore celebrated yesterday's court ruling.
COSATU Spokesperson Vukani Mde however lamented the "tragic that the Court ruling comes too late for many babies who have died unnecessarily but is nevertheless a victory for logic." It was therefore "imperative that this ruling is now implemented as quickly as possible." Mde urged the government not to see the Court judgement "as an attack on itself but as an opportunity to put aside past differences and unite with civil society to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic."
At a news conference soon after the announcement of the ruling, COSATU officials joined AIDS activists in popping champagne bottles and celebration. "We have been vindicated," said COSATU top official Bheki Ntshali-Ntshali. "We think the government has to take this decision very seriously."
More than one tenth of South Africa's population is HIV positive. In one province, KwaZulu-Natal, an estimated 40 percent of women giving birth are HIV positive. In 2001, about 40,000 of the province's children were infected with HIV by their mothers - at least half of these could have been spared by the distribution of Nevirapine.
In April, Minister Tshabalala-Msimang reluctantly ordered the distribution of Nevirapine throughout the country, following a Pretoria High Court order. According to the DA opposition, this order was however "ignored" by at least three provinces, without the government "making any effort to compel them to do so." Following yesterday's ruling, AIDS activists and the opposition expect the distribution to become general.