- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

JOHANNESBURG South Africa's Constitutional Court yesterday upheld a ruling forcing the government to immediately begin distributing a key drug to HIV-infected pregnant women.
The government, which has come under criticism for its often-confusing approach to fighting AIDS, had resisted creating a widespread program to provide the drug nevirapine to HIV-infected pregnant women. The drug has been shown to severely reduce women's chances of passing the virus to their babies during labor.
However, a high court judge ruled in December that South Africa must begin a nationwide nevirapine program. The judge also ruled the government must make the drug immediately available at health institutions with the capacity to administer it even as it appeals the ruling.
The high court last week said the government should not be allowed to appeal that part of the ruling and must make the drug immediately available.
The Constitutional Court agreed yesterday, refusing to hear the government's appeal on that section. The government will be allowed to appeal the whole ruling at a scheduled hearing in May.
After the ruling was announced, dozens of AIDS activists from the Treatment Action Campaign cheered and danced outside the court in Johannesburg. Some 4.7 million South Africans one in nine are HIV positive, more people than any other country in the world.
The government cautioned that the drug would not be made universally available.
"The order of the court specifically points out that government is not required to undertake 'the whole extension' of the nevirapine program," Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in a statement. "What we are expected to do is to enable the drug to be prescribed to HIV-positive pregnant women and their babies."
Nevirapine is administered to infected pregnant mothers and their newborns to prevent the spread of HIV to babies during labor, when much of the HIV transmission could occur. Studies show it can reduce transmission of HIV by up to 50 percent.
The drug has come under renewed debate in South Africa after its manufacturer, Boehringer-Ingelheim of Germany, withdrew its application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to market the drug for prevention of mother-to-child transmission.

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