Business Day, 6 November 2002, TAC Threatens Disobedience On Medicines

THE Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is threatening to launch a civil disobedience campaign to pressure government into providing life-prolonging antiretroviral medicines to people infected with HIV.

Antiretroviral medicines are available in the private sector, but the only patients who can obtain the drugs at public hospitals and clinics are victims of sexual assault or occupational injury.

According to the Centre for Actuarial Research at the University of Cape Town, about 6-million South Africans are infected with HIV, of whom about 420000 are likely to die next year.

TAC spokesman Nathan Geffen said yesterday unless government committed itself to a treatment plan by February, the activists would launch a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience.

This might include the occupation of government offices, hunger strikes, or the illegal importation of needed generic medicines, he said.

To date, the TAC has largely confined its tactics to legal protest. On two separate occasions its members broke the law when they illegally imported generic antiretroviral medicines from Thailand and Brazil.

Geffen said although there had been signs in recent weeks that government was beginning to move towards the provision of antiretroviral medicines, it had previously broken its promises.

"We have a history of having tried to work with government using standard civil society mechanisms, and our actions have been the model of restraint.

"Yet all these years later, we don't have an (AIDS) treatment plan and an unambiguous commitment to providing antiretrovirals," he said.

On October 9, cabinet announced that government was investigating the feasibility of providing antiretroviral medicines to AIDS patients attending public clinics and hospitals, but did not provide a timeframe.

Government has also sent senior health department officials to talks under way at the National Economic, Development and Labour Council (Nedlac) aimed at developing a framework agreement on HIV/AIDS, which would include treatment.

Geffen said yesterday government had so far failed to make any commitments at Nedlac regarding treatment for AIDS patients, either on the provision of antiretroviral medicines, or on increasing funding for treating the opportunistic infections that afflict people infected with HIV.

"We are asking for the facilities to be in place to roll out treatment to 100000 people by March 2004," he said.

The activists estimate that about R300m would be required in the first year of implementation, rising in the next 10 years to about R14bn a year.

The TAC believes these resources must initially come from government, and later from the private sector and the international donor community.

The February deadline given by the TAC stems from a recent meeting with Deputy President Jacob Zuma and senior health department officials to discuss AIDS and its treatment.

TAC had originally demanded that government commits itself to a treatment plan by World AIDS day on December 1, but agreed after the meeting to wait until the end of February.

The organisation wants the Nedlac framework agreement on a national treatment plan to be finalised by December 1.

The SA National AIDS Committee will then present the outcome of the Nedlac process to government.