Hearing Begins Today for Lawsuit Between Treatment Action Campaign and South African Government
The court case brought by the South African AIDS group Treatment Action Campaign to require the South African government to provide nevirapine to prevent vertical HIV transmission began today in the Pretoria High Court, the Agence France-Presse/Washington Times reports. TAC, the Children's Rights Center and Haroon Saloojee, a physician in charge of community pediatrics at the University of the Witwatersrand, filed the suit in an effort to force the South African government to provide nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women (Keeton, Agence France-Presse/Washington Times, 11/26). The three parties are suing the South African National Department of Health and eight of nine provincial health ministers, alleging that government health officials are "violating [AIDS] sufferers' constitutional right to life and health care" by not providing the antiretroviral drug nevirapine to the nation's pregnant women to reduce the risk of vertical transmission (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 11/21). The suit is "demand[ing]" that the government make nevirapine available at all public hospitals and health clinics. In addition, the lawsuit is asking the government to plan and implement a national program to prevent vertical transmission. The plaintiffs are asking that the program be created within three months and that it include voluntary HIV/AIDS counseling and testing, the provision of nevirapine "where appropriate" and a supply of formula to prevent HIV transmission through breastfeeding. The lawsuit has received support from more than 150 health professionals, trade unions, religious organizations and human rights groups. South African Health Director-General Avanda Ntsaluba submitted an affidavit defending the government's approach to preventing vertical transmission. Noting that the government has allocated $2.5 million this year to vertical transmission-related research, Ntsaluba said that the government's vertical transmission program is a "cautious" one that includes "a rigorous view of safety issues and effectiveness." The case will be heard today and tomorrow in Pretoria (Agence France-Presse/Washington Times, 11/26).
The Baltimore Sun reports that the case between TAC and the South African government is "about more than public access to a drug," and is instead indicative of a challenge by AIDS activists to the government's position on AIDS itself. Earlier this year, a debate erupted over a report by South Africa's Medical Research Council stating that AIDS-related causes are the leading cause of death among South Africans (Murphy, Baltimore Sun, 11/26). Before heading to the court in Pretoria, approximately 300 AIDS activists marched to the South African Ministry of Health today to demand that the government "drop its objections to antiretroviral drugs" (Reuters/Contra Costa Times, 11/26). The Sun reports that if TAC wins this case, the lawsuit "may establish a legal foundation for AIDS activists pressuring government to provide" antiretrovirals to all HIV-positive South Africans. Mark Heywood, national secretary of TAC, said, "We have never confined our demands to mother and child transmission. We firmly hold the view that whilst there is value in saving the child's life, there is equal value in saving, prolonging and improving the mother's life and father's life" (Baltimore Sun, 11/26).