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S. African Group Urges Nationwide Distribution of AIDS Drug - 2001-08-21

A group of AIDS activists has filed a lawsuit against the South African government over its AIDS treatment program. The group, the Treatment Action Campaign, wants the government to distribute drugs that can keep pregnant mothers from passing the virus that causes AIDS to their unborn children.

At issue is a drug called viramune, known by the brand name Nevirapine. The South African government has approved it for use in preventing mother to child transmission of HIV. But so far, it is available only in 18 hospitals nationwide, as part of a pilot program designed to test both the drug and the government's ability to distribute it.

The national secretary of the Treatment Action Campaign, Mark Heywood, says the group is demanding two things. It wants the government to make Nevirapine more widely available. And it wants a clear timeframe for a national program to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV. "We're not asking for an order for Nevirapine to be treated like sweets and thrown out all over the place," Mr. Heywood said. "We're asking for an order for appropriate prescription of this medicine based upon its availability."

The Treatment Action Campaign is suing the national health minister and the heads of South Africa's nine provincial health departments.

The government would not comment on the lawsuit immediately, saying it has not yet received the court documents. A health department spokeswoman told VOA officials have not yet decided how they will respond to the case.

Everyone agrees that the problem of mother to child transmission is severe. More than 150 babies are born HIV positive in South Africa every day. Mr. Heywood says that number could be drastically reduced if Nevirapine were made available in all public hospitals.

The Treatment Action Campaign says it is not fair that some women are denied the drug that could save their babies' lives, just because they give birth in one hospital instead of another.

That is what happened to this woman, who asked to be called by her initials, S.H. She is HIV positive and gave birth to a son in July. "It worries me," she said, "to think that my baby didn't get the Nevirapine drops. I feel very angry. I don't want to think about whether my baby got HIV or not."

S.H. does not want her name used in the media because she is afraid of what might happen to her if her family and friends find out she has AIDS. But she and other women like her filed affidavits in support of the Treatment Action Campaign's lawsuit. "This is very painful," she says. "As a mother I believe that women like me who have HIV should have the right to take steps to try to protect their children."

More than 250 health-care workers and medical practitioners also support the lawsuit. Dr. Haroon Saloojee is a pediatrician at Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. He says doctors and nurses have been silent on the issue too long. "It is us," he said, "the health practitioners, and not the politicians, and not the policy makers, who each day have to care for the increasing numbers of sick children with HIV and AIDS. It is us, the doctors and nurses, and not the politicians and policy makers, who each day have to deal with these dying children, succumbing to this terrible disease at the hospitals and clinics around the country." Dr. Saloojee said.

The company that manufactures Nevirapine has offered to give it free of charge to a number of developing nations, including South Africa. The government has recently indicated it may accept the offer. But the Treatment Action Campaign says the lawsuit will go forward anyway, because as far as they know the free drugs would still only be distributed through the 18 hospitals in the pilot study, and not nationwide.