Pretoria, South Africa The South African government's muddled AIDS policy took a major blow Friday when a court ruled that it must make a key AIDS drug available to HIV-positive pregnant women. Doctors say the drug could save the lives of 50,000 newborns a year.
The Pretoria High Court said the government not only must distribute the drug nevirapine to those women giving birth in public hospitals, but it also must institute a nationwide program to reduce mother-to-child transmissions of HIV.
Nearly one of every four expectant mothers in South Africa tests positive for the virus that causes AIDS.
Some 200 babies are born HIV-positive every day in South Africa, and studies show nevirapine can reduce transmission of the virus during labor by up to 50 percent.
The government argued that the drug remained unproven.
"About one thing there must be no misunderstanding: a countrywide MTCT (mother-to-child transmission) prevention program is an ineluctable obligation of the State," Pretoria High Court Judge Chris Botha wrote.
He gave the government until March 31 to report back on how the program to include counseling, HIV testing, and the distribution of baby formula was being implemented.
AIDS activists cheered the landmark decision, saying it might pave the way for making other AIDS drugs more widely available to infected adults.
"We've made history today," said Mark Heywood, secretary of the group that filed the suit.