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South Africa Agency To Appeal Ruling on AIDS Drug

The South African health department says it will appeal a court ruling requiring it to distribute the anti-AIDS drug Nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women.

South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang says the government has instructed its lawyers to appeal the court ruling as soon as possible.

She said the government is seeking the "wisdom of the Constitutional Court," because the ruling could "have far-reaching implications" for government's responsibility for delivering social services.

The Pretoria High Court ruled last week that the government must make the drug Nevirapine available to women nationwide. One dose, costing about one dollar, can keep a mother infected with HIV from passing the virus on to her child. It is currently only prescribed at selected public hospitals as part of a trial program.

The court said every HIV-positive woman has the right to such treatment. It gave the government until the end of March to come up with a plan to expand the program nationwide.

The government's decision to appeal that ruling was immediately criticized by opposition parties, a group of religious leaders and the Treatment Action Campaign, which filed the original lawsuit along with two other AIDS-activist groups.

The three groups issued a statement calling the decision to appeal "regrettable." They have said they are confident the Constitutional Court will rule in their favor, and they urged the government to drop its appeal.

The health minister insists, however, that the government is just seeking "clarity," not trying to obstruct development of a mother-to-child-transmission program.

"Whether we appeal or not, the program we have set for ourselves as government with regards to Nevirapine continues. It continues because we as government have dedicated ourselves to making every effort possible to reduce the mother-to-child transmission of HIV," she said.

Dr. Tshabalala-Msimang said the national health department will meet with provincial health officials in January to re-evaluate the Nevirapine pilot program. She says they will take the latest data into account in planning the future of the program.