New Front In AIDS War

With the end of the government's battle against the pharmaceutical industry, South African officials once again must confront their own spotty record on fighting the disease.

The pharmaceutical companies had claimed that a 1997 South African law regulating medicines was too broad and unfairly targeted drug manufacturers. The suit was dropped this week, giving the government a huge but fleeting victory.

The end of the fight has put renewed pressure on the government to quickly provide AIDS medication through the public health system, which covers the vast majority of South Africans.

"While we are moving so slowly, we are faced at the present moment with the situation where people who are living with HIV are dying," said Prudence Mabele, a 29-year-old woman who has been infected for 10 years and cannot afford to buy AIDS medication.

At a news conference after the case was withdrawn, health department officials said South Africa still lacked the health care infrastructure to distribute anti-retroviral drugs and could not afford the medicine without outside assistance, even at the reduced prices.

Tshabalala-Msimang also touted the government's efforts to fight tuberculosis, pneumonia and other diseases that prey on AIDS sufferers as proof of a commitment to fight AIDS.

"It does not mean that because you do not produce anti-retrovirals and administer them you are not treating people who are HIV positive," she said.

Toby Kasper, a spokesman for the international aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres, said the government was trying to deflate expectations that AIDS medication would instantly become available across the country.

"They have been able to gain the moral high ground … but it's not going to last if they don't show a commitment to do more," said Morna Cornell, the former head of the AIDS Consortium, a local coalition of private AIDS groups. "If one does not see some action, there will very quickly be a backlash against the government."

South Africa has come under heavy condemnation for its handling of HIV, which infects 4.7 million of its citizens.

Under former President Nelson Mandela, South Africa spent millions of dollars on a controversial AIDS awareness play and on developing its own AIDS medication that was found to contain an industrial solvent.

Current President Thabo Mbeki has been internationally criticized for entertaining the ideas of fringe theorists, some of whom argue HIV does not cause AIDS, and others who deny the existence of AIDS at all.

The government also has yet to initiate a nationwide program to prevent transmission of the virus from pregnant women to their babies during childbirth.

South Africa's drug regulatory body only approved the drug nevirapine for that purpose this week, after being accused of delaying the medicine for more than a year. The Cabinet still has to approve a pilot program using the medication.

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