Mothers-to-be win right to drug in Aids lawsuit

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The Independent Online

The South African government will be forced to make an Aids drug available to expectant mothers after losing a lawsuit.

Aids activists cheered and hugged yesterday when Judge Chris Botha read his ruling that the government had to make nevirapine available to all women giving birth in public hospitals. The government must also to work to cut mother-to-child transmission of HIV, Judge Botha said.

The government was given until 31 March to report to court on how the programme ­ which was to include counselling, HIV testing and follow-up treatment ­ was being implemented.

Some 200 babies are born HIV-positive every day in South Africa, and studies show that nevirapine can reduce the transmission of the virus from mother to child during labour by up to 50 per cent.

Judge Botha rejected the government's argument that the drug's safety remained unproven and that it lacked the infrastructure to administer it. The case was the first big legal challenge to the government's policy on Aids medication. "About one thing there must be no misunderstanding: a countrywide MTCT [mother to child transmission] prevention programme is an ineluctable obligation of the state," Judge Botha wrote.

He ruled that the government policy of not expanding the distribution of nevirapine beyond 18 existing pilot sites was "not reasonable".

Dr Haron Saloojee, one of the paediatricians who filed the lawsuit, called the verdict "a special Christmas present" that could potentially save the lives of 50,000 babies next year. "We have been shackled for too long by the restraints of our policy makers," he said.

Mark Heywood, the secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, an Aids activist group that filed the lawsuit, said the judgment would bring hope to tens of thousands of pregnant women and could pave the way for Aids drugs to be made available more widely to adults. "We don't want to save the lives of children, only to have a generation of orphans," he said.

Government officials were not available for comment. The opposition Democratic Alliance welcomed the ruling. "It is the most powerful statement yet of the harmfulness of the government's Aids policies," the Alliance's spokesman, Manny da Camara, said. The government argued in court that despite being administered nevirapine, women were transmitting HIV to their children through breast milk and that more counsellors were needed to help to educate them. It also complained of having insufficient funding to provide follow-up treatment.

The German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim has offered nevirapine free to developing countries.

About one in nine South Africans is HIV positive. Thabo Mbeki, the President, has questioned the link between HIV and Aids, saying poverty and malnutrition are also to blame.