South African Union Boss Demands Government Supply Anti-AIDS Drugs

The head of the powerful Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) challenged the South African government last week to provide anti-retroviral drugs to nearly five million South Africans living with HIV/AIDS. Willy Madisha, president of COSATU, said at a center for terminally-ill AIDS patients that the "public sector (should) be centrally involved in rolling out treatment since only it has the leverage and the capacity to reach all our people."

Calling the case of people living with HIV the "litmus test of our revolution," Madisha pointed out that he voted for the government in the belief it would look after its most vulnerable citizens. "The bottom line is that for 200,000 people a year, access to these medicines is their only hope."

Historically, COSATU is a powerful ally of the ruling African National Congress party, but it has broken ranks with the government over its AIDS policy. In breaking with government policy, Madisha called for the government to make the anti-retroviral drug nevirapine available to all HIV-positive pregnant women and to give political backing to the local production of generic anti-retroviral drugs, which would be affordable in South Africa.

Madisha said the distribution to pregnant women of nevirapine could save up to half of about 70,000 babies born with HIV each year. "The issue of mother-to-child transmission needs to be put to bed . . . we, as a nation, cannot wait," said Madisha.

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