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AIDS drug 'too expensive'

PRETORIA, South Africa -- South Africa says it cannot afford to provide a nationwide treatment designed for pregnant women with HIV and AIDS.

AIDS activists and doctors have taken the South African government to court in a bid to force it to provide the key antiretroviral drug, nevirapine.

But lawyers representing the government said on Tuesday that such a program would cripple its public health system.

They say South Africa has more people living with HIV-AIDS than any other country. Between 70,000 and 100,000 babies are born HIV-positive yearly.

The government is also said to have doubts about the efficiency of nevirapine, which is designed to cut the risk of pregnant women passing the deadly disease to their babies.

A dose of nevirapine -- a tablet given to the mother during labour and a teaspoon to the baby within the first 72 hours after birth -- could cut infection by up to 50 percent, activists say.

Marumo Moerane, lawyer for the government, told the court: "The government has stated on oath it does not have the resources.

"(Lack of resources) plays a major role, but one cannot exclude studies of resistance, long term efficacy and safety."

The drug was offered to the government free for five years by German pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim last year.

AIDS activists say President Thabo Mbeki's government should stop spending billions of dollars on a new arms deal and divert some of the money to badly-needed AIDS drugs.

Mbeki, who has yet to acknowledge a link between HIV and AIDS, has said antiretrovirals are as dangerous as the disease they treat.

"It's shameful. The government is basically saying 'we reserve the right to hand out this life-saving medicine'," said Mark Heywood, secretary of AIDS lobby group Treat Action Campaign (TAC) which is leading the case against the government.

TAC and other groups lobbying on behalf of people living with HIV-AIDS have taken the National Department of Health and health ministers from eight of the country's nine provinces to court saying they are violating people's constitutional right to life and to health care.

The government has set up pilot projects at 18 sites across the country to assess the value of nevirapine, but the AIDS groups say this is insufficient as the program reached only 10 percent of HIV-positive women.

Moerane said the government's cautious attitude had been prompted by some tests which showed the drug was toxic particularly when used over a long period of time.

"There've been long-term side effects, including severe life-threatening reactions," he said.

"We're not dealing with an ordinary drug, we're dealing with a potent drug which has certain requirements in order to be administered effectively."


• Nevirapine
• The AIDS Foundation of South Africa
• South African Government
• Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals

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