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Tuesday, 27 November, 2001, 04:04 GMT
Hand out Aids drug says SA judge
South African midwives and babies
Activists want a new policy on mother-child transmission
The judge hearing an action brought by Aids campaigners against the South African Government has said he thinks an anti-HIV drug should be made available all over the country as soon as possible.

The government has argued it cannot afford to distribute the drug Nevirapine safely, and wants to run tests for toxic side-effects.


This case is about life and death. It raises concerns about whether the newly born child will live or die

Gilbert Marcus
The campaigners want all HIV-positive pregnant women to be offered the drug Nevirapine, to reduce the chance of their babies contracting the virus.

The case continues, but our correspondent Barnaby Phillips says Justice Chris Botha appears to be siding with activists against the government.

About 70,000 HIV-positive children are born in South Africa every year and the court case has raised intense emotions.

Correspondents say the frustration many South Africans feel about their government's Aids policy is now coming to the surface.

Impassioned plea

Aids activists have been arguing in court that irrational government policies are threatening the lives of mothers and children.

The activists, known as the Treatment Action Campaign, say the government is acting unconstitutionally by failing to provide enough of the drugs which reduce the transmission of the HIV virus from mothers to children.

The government argues it is introducing Nevirapine in a gradual, responsible way.

It says that even if the drug were available, the virus would be passed on to babies, because their mothers breast feed them.

Activists say a national policy to reduce the transmission of the HIV virus to children should include the provision of milk powder formula to avoid this problem.

Lawyer Gilbert Marcus made an impassioned plea for the government to make Nevirapine widely available, describing the case as "a matter of life and death".

But the government says it is concerned about toxicity and says Nevirapine cannot be distributed safely. It also argues that the courts have no right to rule on policy decisions.

Strong allies

Mr Marcus said government's policy was "arbitrary, unreasonable, and irrational".

South African President Thabo Mbeki
President Mbeki has controversial views on Aids and HIV

He and other activists have some important allies, not least the World Health Organisation which supports the use of Nevirapine and will be giving evidence in the case.

Activists believe that with political will, the number of children born with HIV every year will be halved.

Campaigners say the government is half-hearted, and believe this attitude has its origins in President Thabo Mbeki's own doubts as to the causes, and the extent, of the disease.

Mother-to-child

Nearly five million people in South Africa are infected with HIV.

Although the main method of transmission is through sexual intercourse, the virus can also be passed from mother to child.

About 30 out of every 100 HIV positive mothers pass the virus to their babies, most commonly during delivery when the baby comes into contact with the mother's blood.

Nevirapine is one type of drug which prevents this form of HIV transmission.

Of those available, it is the cheapest and easiest to use - one dose can be given to the mother at the onset of labour and another dose to the baby up to 72 hours after birth.

See also:

21 Aug 01 | Africa
South Africa sued over Aids drugs
28 Nov 00 | Africa
Africa's Aids burden
19 Apr 01 | Health
SA Aids case: The repercussions
30 Jul 01 | Africa
Church rejects plea on condoms
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