KwaZulu-Natal Officials ‘Override’ National Government, Make AIDS Drug Available at Public Hospitals for HIV-Positive Pregnant Women
Leaders of "South Africa's most AIDS-stricken province," KwaZulu-Natal, announced Monday that the AIDS drug nevirapine, which reduces the risk of vertical HIV transmission, would be made available at public hospitals, "overrid[ing]" South African national government restrictions on the drug, the AP/New York Times reports. KwaZulu-Natal premier Lionel Mtshali, leader of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party-controlled province, said he made the decision to allow the drug's distribution "on principle," adding that an HIV-positive woman "should not have to contend with a hopeless situation of her unborn child facing the same affliction if it can be prevented." KwaZulu-Natal is the second South African province to make nevirapine available; health officials in the Western Cape, which was controlled solely by the Democratic Alliance, began distributing the drug in 2000. Although nevirapine is WHO-approved and may be able to reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV by up to 50%, the African National Congress, which controls "outright" the other seven South African provinces and the national government, has restricted use of the drug to "a few pilot sites," saying that the drug's "safety remains unproven" and that "inadequate structures are in place to administer it." South Africa's national government, led by President Thabo Mbeki, who has "questioned the link between HIV and AIDS," has "come under fire for its haphazard approach" toward fighting HIV/AIDS (AP/New York Times, 1/21).
TAC, Government Battle Continues
The national government's failure to approve nevirapine for use in public hospitals led to a court battle last year, resulting in a court order that the drug be made available in state hospitals to all HIV-positive pregnant women. The government has appealed the order and a final decision could be "up to a year" away (South African Press Association, 1/22). However, the Treatment Action Campaign, which originally filed the suit against the South African government, on Sunday announced that it has filed papers opposing the government's appeal of the High Court ruling, the Associated Press reports. High Court Judge Chris Botha is expected in the next few weeks to rule on whether he will hear the appeal. Even if the appeal is accepted, it will not be heard until May at the earliest. Mark Heywood, a spokesman for TAC, said the group will file a motion "in the interim" asking the court to force the government to comply immediately with part of the court order by making nevirapine available in all hospitals that have "adequate testing and counseling facilities." TAC is also expected to take legal action to enable Cipla, an Indian generic drug maker, to sell its copies of drugs patented by GlaxoSmithKline and Boehringer Ingelheim in South Africa. "We still believe the drugs are too expensive -- essential medicines are still unavailable to the people who need them," Heywood said (Cohen, Associated Press, 1/20).