/ 11 September 2007

TAC: Manto’s statement ‘a gross distortion of the truth’

Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang’s statement concerning dual-therapy HIV treatment was a ”gross distortion of the truth”, the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) said on Tuesday.

The TAC also welcomed the Health Department’s announcement at Monday’s meeting of the South African National Aids Council that dual therapy as a minimum treatment for preventing mother-to-child HIV transmission was due for ”imminent approval”.

According to Tshabalala-Msimang, a 2001 Constitutional Court judgement limited her department to implementing only monotherapy nevirapine to HIV-positive pregnant mothers.

Beeld reported the minister as saying at Monday’s meeting that were it not for the TAC’s 2001 court case, pregnant mothers would already have had access to dual-therapy treatment. She also claimed that nevirapine monotherapy did not work.

”This is a gross distortion of the truth,” said the TAC in a statement.

”The decision to use single-dose nevirapine as opposed to AZT or other more effective regimens was taken by the Department of Health when it initiated 18 PMTCT [preventing mother-to-child transmission] pilot sites before the case.

”But it refused to extend the programme beyond these pilot sites. Single-dose nevirapine was the cheapest regimen available and this probably informed the state’s decision.”

At one stage during Monday’s meeting, the TAC’s Mark Heywood sat shaking his head while Tshabalala-Msimang spoke about the ineffectiveness of nevirapine in preventing mother-to-child transmission, reported Beeld.

According to the TAC’s statement, a number of public health facilities were ready to roll out PMTCT but were prevented from doing so by the Health Department, giving rise to the TAC’s court case.

Currently only the Western Cape was implementing dual-therapy treatment. This had reduced the mother-to-child HIV infection rate to about 8%, said the TAC.

In a speech in the National Assembly in 1999, Tshabalala-Msimang quoted from a study during which 308 women took AZT and 310 nevirapine. The latter was found to be ”markedly more effective”, safer, less expensive and more practical than AZT or any other drug tested so far, in preventing mother-to-child transmission, she said.

Nevirapine was also considerably cheaper that ATZ, at R30 per mother and child as opposed to R400. — Sapa