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Tuesday, 5 February, 2002, 15:31 GMT
South Africa doctors join Aids row
South African midwives and babies
About one in nine South Africans is HIV-positive
By the BBC's Corinne Podger

South Africa's leading body for specialist doctors has criticised delays by the country's health ministry in providing anti-Aids drugs to pregnant women.

The statement by the Colleges of Medicine of South Africa says the delays are unethical.

We believe it is unethical and against medical principles to withhold preventative treatment for mother-to-child transmission of HIV

Doctors' statement

Treating HIV-positive women with anti-Aids drugs during their pregnancy is known to help prevent the transmission of the virus to their babies, both before and during birth.

It has been estimated that treating these South African mothers would save the lives of around 70,000 babies a year.

'Indisputable evidence'

Late last year, the High Court in Pretoria ordered the South African government to provide a drug called Nevirapine to all pregnant women infected with HIV.

Two provinces - KwaZuluNatal and the Western Cape - have begun programmes to deliver the drug to all affected women by July this year.

But the South African government says it lacks the infrastructure and funds to roll out a national treatment programme; instead, it has restricted availability to a few "pilot sites".

Source: Medical Research Council

The government has also cast doubts on whether Nevirapine can actually prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and whether it is safe.

In its statement on Tuesday, the South African Colleges of Medicine - which represents 7,000 specialist doctors and 2,000 family practitioners - said the failure to begin providing the drug to women with HIV was "unethical".

The statement said there was indisputable evidence that Nevirapine works, and criticised the government for fuelling doubts about a "proven, effective treatment" in the public mind.

And it said the cost of treatment would be far less than the increasing cost of treating HIV-infected patients who had gone on to develop Aids.

It is estimated that one in nine South Africans - about 4.7 million people - are HIV positive. Around HIV-related 200,000 deaths are predicted this year.

See also:

19 Dec 01 | Africa
SA to fight Aids drug ruling
01 Jun 01 | Africa
South African Aids icon dies
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