Cash-strapped S. African government cuts AIDS drug programs
May 6, 1999
From Johannesburg Bureau Chief Charlayne Hunter-Gault
JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- Public health and AIDS activists are pressing the South African government to provide the drug AZT to rape victims, citing U.S. studies showing that prompt use of the drug, in combination with three others, can reduce the risk of contracting HIV by 81 percent.
But the cash-strapped government is refusing to go along. And last year, it ended a pilot project that provided AZT to pregnant HIV-positive women. Research shows that the use of AZT in these cases lessens the chances that the babies will contract HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.
Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma said the AZT project was eating up the resources the government had for all AIDS-related programs -- in a country that has one of the highest AIDS rates in the world.
"With the limited resources we have, we have to make choices in terms of what we prioritize -- even about AIDS," he said. "And at the moment, the priority is prevention."
AIDS activists, who are trying to inject the issue into the country's elections next month, say that thinking is short-sighted.
"Our country cannot afford 50,000 children being born with HIV this year and an increase on that number next year and an increase on that number for many years to come," said Mark Haywood of the AIDS Law Project.
Last week, the government did ask the manufacturer of AZT, Glaxo Wellcome, to lower the price of the drug. The company replied that it was already offering AZT at a significant discount to many developing countries, including South Africa.
AIDS activists say they are prepared to go to court, both against the government and Glaxo Wellcome, if they don't change their respective positions.
Meanwhile, as the debate intensifies, hospices -- including one run by the Salvation Army in Johannesburg -- are filling up with babies and sometimes their mothers.
Some, like 16-year-old Luci Ndlovu, are HIV-positive. But her two-month-old daughter is HIV-negative, thanks to the AZT she was able to get for her at birth.
"My results were not good, but my baby's were good," Ndlovu said. "It's a miracle."
But there are no such miracles for 25-year-old Nonlanhla Ngubane, who could not afford AZT. She is HIV-positive and so is her 2-year-old daughter.
For Ngubane and women like her, the debate over AZT comes too late. But with 1,500 new cases of AIDS in South Africa each day, the pressure to resolve the issue is building.
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Glaxo Wellcome Inc.
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