December 14, 2001
PRETORIA, South Africa (AP) AIDS activists and pediatricians won a landmark lawsuit against the South African government Friday, forcing it to make a key drug available to expectant mothers who are infected with the AIDS virus.
Activists who packed the court gallery cheered and hugged each other as Judge Chris Botha read a brief judgment stating that the government had to make the drug nevirapine available to all women giving birth in public hospitals.
Botha also ordered the government to institute a nationwide program to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The government was given until March 31 to report back to the court on how the program which was to include counseling, HIV testing and follow-up treatment was being implemented.
Some 200 babies are born HIV-positive every day in South Africa, and studies show nevirapine can reduce the transmission of the virus from mother to child by up to 50 percent.
The government, however, had argued that the drug remained unproven.
The case was the first major legal challenge to the government's policy on AIDS medication.
Dr. Haron Saloojee, one of the pediatricians 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, a lawyer for the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS activist group, said the judgment could also pave the way for AIDS drugs to be made more widely available 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 immediately available for comment.
The German drug company Boehringer Ingelheim has offered nevirapine free to developing countries. South Africa has yet to accept the offer, although it is testing the drug at 18 pilot sites.
The government argued that despite being given nevirapine, women were still transmitting HIV to their children through their breast milk, and that more counselors were needed to help educate HIV-positive mothers.
It also complained of having insufficient funding to provide follow-up treatment.
About one in nine South Africans is HIV positive, and the government's often muddled approach to dealing with AIDS has drawn criticism.
President Thabo Mbeki has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS, saying poverty and malnutrition are also to blame for the spread of the epidemic.