September 19, 2001

South Africa Official: AIDS Drugs Costly

Associated Press from the Los Angeles Times


    CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- Although pharmaceutical companies have cut the price of AIDS medication, South Africa still cannot afford to provide the drugs through the public health system, the health minister said Thursday.

More than 4.7 million South Africans, 11 percent of the population, are HIV positive -- one of the world's worst infection rates.

The government has drawn widespread criticism for not supplying anti-AIDS drugs to those infected.

"The budget I have for medicines is 2 billion rand ($233 million)," Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang told a news conference. "If I were to buy anti-retrovirals I would have to forget about everything else."

Tshabalala-Msimang said the government will oppose a lawsuit filed last month by AIDS activists and pediatricians aimed at forcing it to give the drug nevirapine to all HIV-positive pregnant women, to reduce their chances of passing the virus on to their babies during labor.

Nearly 200 South African babies are born with HIV each day. Studies show nevirapine can reduce that number by nearly 50 percent.

The government has established several research sites to test the nevirapine. However, it said the drug cannot be administered without assuring support for patients, like counseling, follow-up treatment and assurances they would not be isolated from their communities.

Last month, over 9,000 women visited the research centers, and 6,400 of them opted for counseling and HIV testing.

Zackie Achmat, chairman of the Treatment Action Campaign, said the government's opposition to the lawsuit was regrettable.

"Every day the government delays (providing the drugs) will cost lives, and those are lives they could have saved," he said.

Tshabalala-Msimang announced contracts worth $10.4 million had been awarded to two private communication consortiums, to shore up the government's AIDS prevention campaign.