13 June 2002

Zimbabwe: Government Gets Ultimatum On HIV/Aids Drug

THE Women and AIDS Support Network (WASN), a Zimbabwean non-governmental organisation, yesterday threatened to take the government to court if it did not begin systematically supplying the anti-AIDS drug Nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women before December 1.

Nevirapine is an antiretroviral drug that reduces by 50 percent the mother-to-child transmission of HIV, the virus which causes AIDS.

Germany-based Boehri-nger Ingelheim, the manufacturer of the drug, is supplying it free of charge to several developing countries, including Zimbabwe.

"Women and AIDS Support Network has launched a petition to demand that government avails Nevirapine to HIV-positive expectant women at all health centres throughout the country by 1 December 2002," a WASN spokeswoman said yesterday.

"If the government refuses, legal action will follow because we already have a precedent in South Africa. But we hope we do not have to go that far. We are working on programmes to conscientise the public."

South African AIDS activists last year won a court case to force their government to provide free Nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant women giving birth at state hospitals.

WASN said although the drug was being supplied free of charge in Zimbabwe, it remained largely unavailable to most HIV-positive pregnant women and private medical practitioners.

The organisation said only 35 health centres in Zimbabwe offered Nevirapine to HIV- positive expectant mothers, yet it is estimated that out of the 600 000 Zimbabweans who give birth annually, 200 000 of them are HIV-positive and 30 percent transmit the virus to their babies.

This means that between 55 000 and 60 000 babies are born infected every year.

"Given these figures and the fact that half the year has already passed with less than 35 centres offering Nevirapine, WASN questions the government's commitment to the programme," WASN said.

The NGO said it was concerned that conditions set by the government for health centres applying for Nevirapine would not be met because most centres were short-staffed and their standards had deteriorated, especially in rural areas where half of Zimbabweans live.

The conditions stipulate that health centres must have adequate AIDS counsellors, nurses, doctors and medical equipment.

WASN said: "If the government is to put such measures, most of the centres will not qualify to participate in the programme, particularly in rural areas where the bulk of women are based. To us as WASN, this is unacceptable."

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