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Wednesday, April 28, 1999 Published at 18:37 GMT 19:37 UK

Aids row in South Africa

AZT is expensive and its effectiveness uncertain says the SA government

Demonstrators in Johannesburg are demanding access to the latest treatment for pregnant women infected with HIV - the AIDS virus.

The hard-pressed South African Health Ministry say they cannot afford the drug AZT, even though the makers of the drug, Glaxo Wellcome, are reported to have offered them a substantial discount.

Zackie Achmad describes what the protestors hope to achieve
Western countries have been promoting the use of AZT to pregnant women as a way of reducing HIV transmission.

UK Aids organisations say research shows the number of babies born to HIV positive mothers who themselves become infected falls by two-thirds if the mother takes AZT and does not breastfeed.

However, the drug is very expensive.

An estimated one in five pregnant women treated in public hospitals is HIV-positive and the cost of private treatment at about $500 is way beyond the reach of most South Africans.

Zackie Achmad, spokesman for the National Association of People Living With Aids, said the planned demonstration outside Glaxo Wellcome was demanding drugs be sold at cost price to assist in treating pregnant women.

"The cost of treating babies with HIV or AIDS is much higher than preventing transmission from mother to child," he said.

Not cost-effective

The Health Ministry says the cost of providing treatment would be nearly 1m and with the benefits of AZT still far from clear it was not cost-effective.

Vincent Hlongwane explains why the government will not meet the cost of AZT
Health Ministry spokesman Vincent Hlongwane said the government was concentrating its budget on information and awareness campaigns.

"We can't throw all our money - the limited resources - on just one intervention which is not 100% foolproof," he said.

Rape concern

Women's groups also say the drugs can reduce the chances of contracting HIV if administered within 24 hours of sexual intercourse.

[ image: Journalist and rape victim Charlene Smith: Government should supply drugs to rape victims]
Journalist and rape victim Charlene Smith: Government should supply drugs to rape victims
Concern is being expressed at the increased danger women face of infection from rape.

People Opposing Women Abuse, Powa, says police statistics grossly under-estimate the true extent of rape in South Africa.

They say that for every reported rape, 35 victims stay silent - resulting in a rape occurring every half-minute in South Africa.

South Africa is among the most crime-plagued countries in the world with 116 rapes per 100,000 - nearly double the annual murder rate of 59 per 100,000 in 1998.

More than 1,500 new infections are taking place every day, and by the end of the first decade of the new millennium more than a quarter of the population is expected to have contracted HIV.

New treatment

Meanwhile, scientists in southern Africa have shown that a treatment used for leukaemia and sickle cell anaemia could be a cheap alternative to expensive cocktails of Aids drugs, including AZT.

They claim hydroxyurea, used in combination with a low dose of ddI, an existing HIV drug, can reduce the virus to undetectable levels within six months.

According to the New Scientist, the drug combination was tested on 127 Aids patients at an HIV clinic in South Africa.

Sixty-eight per cent of the people had undetectable levels of HIV within six months and the virus was kept at bay.

The results were replicated in a study in Botswana.

The combination does have side effects in some patients, such as darkened skin and nails, but only a small amount of patients are affected.

Hydroxyurea costs around $100 a year. Combined with ddI, the annual cost is $1,200 - a tenth the cost of triple combination therapy favoured in the west.

This is still too high for most developing countries and Aids campaigners are trying to get Bristol Myers Squibb, who manufacture ddI, to reduce the price in Africa.

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