Negligence Suit Filed Against South African Health Authority on Behalf of HIV-Positive Baby
Attorneys representing a six-month-old infant who contracted HIV from her mother are suing South African health authorities for negligence for failing to inform the mother of means available to reduce the odds of vertical transmission, the Johannesburg Mail & Guardian reports. The mother says that she was never asked about her HIV status while regularly attending antenatal classes at the Ka-Nyamazane clinic at Rob Ferreira Hospital, and although she underwent repeated blood tests, no one ever discussed with her the results. She became aware of her HIV status in 1998, but she did not disclose the information to anyone because of the stigma attached to the virus (Magardie, Johannesburg Mail & Guardian, 10/19). However, the woman's mother reports that she informed doctors of her daughter's HIV status, and no one informed the pregnant woman that the drug nevirapine could reduce her chances of passing the virus on to her fetus (Swindells, Reuters, 10/19). Richard Spoor, the attorney representing the baby with assistance from the AIDS Law Project, has served a letter of demand on Mpumalanga Health Minister Sibongile Manana seeking $76,000 (U.S.) in damages (Mail & Guardian, 10/19). "This child faces a very bleak future unless we win this case," Spoor said, explaining that the mother is unemployed and will most likely die before the child's fifth birthday if she does not receive help. "The health authorities and doctors have a duty to care for pregnant women. Their conduct was unlawful, they are liable," Spoor stated (Reuters, 10/19). Spoor also said that the health authority could have done "much more" to protect the infant. Doctors could have included HIV information in the antenatal classes, prescribed vitamin supplements and delivered the infant by Caesarean section, which carries a lower risk of transmission than vaginal delivery. The mother says that at "the very least" health authorities could have informed her that nevirapine was available in the private sector.
If the case goes to court, it could have "dramatic consequences" for the South African government's policy of not providing antiretroviral drugs to HIV-positive pregnant women (Mail& Guardian, 10/19). The South African Medicines Control Council approved nevirapine last December for use in the prevention of HIV transmission from pregnant women to their unborn infants, as well as for rape cases, and the government announced plans to launch an 18-site pilot project to distribute the drug to HIV-positive pregnant women last January (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 1/29). In August, the Treatment Action Campaign, an AIDS advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the government seeking to force officials to expand the program "throughout the public health system" and to require the government to develop a "clear national policy" on the prevention of vertical transmission, "including all components, such as counseling" (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/22). Together, the two cases will likely "throw a spotlight on the government's controversial approach to AIDS," Reuters reports. A report released last week by South Africa's Medical Research Council listed AIDS as South Africa's leading killer and warned that up to seven million people could die of the disease by 2010 if prevention steps were not taken and treatment was not offered. But the government has declined to provide antiretroviral therapy, saying the drugs are too expensive and that their safety is unproven (Reuters, 10/19).