- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

PRETORIA, South Africa AIDS activists and pediatricians won a landmark lawsuit against the government yesterday, forcing it to provide a key drug to expectant mothers infected with HIV.
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 the women giving birth in public hospitals.
Mr. 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.
"About one thing there must be no misunderstanding: A countrywide MTCT [mother-to-child transmission] prevention program is an ineluctable obligation of the State," Mr. Botha wrote in his 72-page judgment.
Mr. Botha ruled that the government policy not to expand the distribution of nevirapine beyond 18 existing pilot sites, "not reasonable."
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 also could 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 opposition Democratic Alliance welcomed the ruling.
"It is the most powerful statement yet of the harmfulness of the government's AIDS policies in general, and its policies on mother-to-child HIV transmission in particular," Democratic Alliance spokesman Manny da Camara said.
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 sites.

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