|Jan 18, 2002
SOUTH AFRICA: Doctors Defy Ban on Anti-retroviral Drugs
The South African Medical Association (SAMA) has come to the defence of
doctors who are defying the government's ban on administering anti-retrovirals
- drugs designed to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS - in the public health
system. SAMA represents around 70 percent of South African doctors, both in the
private and public sectors.
Doctors at Kimberley Hospital, in South Africa's Northern Cape province,
were reportedly reprimanded for treating a nine-month-old girl with
anti-retrovirals, after she was raped and sodomised. They received the
reprimand from Elizabeth Dipou Peters, who is a Member of the Executive Council
(MEC) for Health, according to media reports.
The South African government has refused to make anti-retrovirals
available in state hospitals on the grounds that it is not known how effective
the drugs are - and that they may in fact be toxic. While the use of the drugs
to reduce the spread of HIV and AIDS is accepted practice internationally,
South Africa President, Thabo Mbeki, has repeatedly warned that they are
dangerous and has questioned the link between HIV and AIDS.
Despite this official government stance, doctors in public hospitals
have reportedly been quietly providing the drugs to survivors of rape and
pregnant women, in an attempt to protect them from the disease. However, it now
looks like they may be headed for a clash with the South African health
In a statement, SAMA says: ''The Human Rights, Law and Ethics Committee
of SAMA affirms its strong support for the rights of medical practitioners to
clinical independence and autonomy... This includes the right to treat patients
without undue influence, pressure or victimisation from employers or government
institutions,'' it says. ''SAMA also supports the rights of patients to receive
necessary treatment, always with their informed consent. This includes the
rights of all pregnant women who are HIV positive to receive the best available
treatment that has been proven to reduce mother to child transmission. This
principle should apply to rape survivors.
SAMA points out that its members and affiliated groups were part of a
recent court case in which the South African government was taken to court in
an attempt to force it to make anti-retrovirals available in the public health
system, to pregnant women and survivors of rape. While the court ruled in
favour of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), which led the case against the
government, the health department has decided to appeal against the finding.
The minister of health has indicated that the department's main reason
for appealing the decision to South Africa's Constitutional Court is to get
certainty over just how much influence the courts should have in setting
government policy. It may take as long as a year before the appeal is heard.
Ironically, at the end of last year, the ruling African National
Congress (ANC) became part of a coalition that won control of the Western Cape
provincial government. While under the control of the opposition Democratic
Alliance, state hospitals and clinics in the Western Cape treated rape
survivors with anti-retroviral drugs to minimise the risk of HIV infection. The
new coalition government, which is dominated by the ANC, has promised to
continue with the policy of providing anti-retrovirals in the provincial public
health system. (IPS)