Companies doing little to fight AIDS

Agence France Presse

London, January 20:

Businesses in Africa, Asia and Russia are being too slow in tackling the AIDS epidemic and averting the economic damage it causes, according to a major global survey published on Thursday. Companies in most countries rarely draw up written policies to tackle HIV/AIDS until 20 per cent of the national population is infected, according to the survey of 9,000 business leaders worldwide.

The response is a case of “too little, too late”, given the benefits such policies could have, Kate Taylor, the Geneva-based director of the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Global Health Initiative, said in London. Despite the fact that 14,000 people contract HIV/AIDS on average every day, concern among businesses has dropped sharply in the last 12 months, with 71 per cent of companies having no policies at all in place to tackle the disease.

Over 65 per cent of business leaders surveyed could not estimate the prevalence of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, within their own workforce. It also revealed that across sub-Saharan Africa, even in countries with an HIV prevalence of 10-19 per cent, only around seven per cent of companies have formal HIV/AIDS policies in place. “There is an even greater gap between prevalence and policies in China, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria and Russia,” the report said.

These are the so-called “next wave” countries, which are predicted to experience the highest numbers of new HIV/AIDS cases worldwide by 2010.

David Bloom, professor of Economics and Demography at the Harvard School of Public Health, which jointly published the study with the WEF and United Nations agency UNAIDS, said he feared the epidemic was outpacing efforts to fight it. In areas where the prevalence of HIV/AIDS is above 20 per cent, such as in southern Africa and central Africa, there is a big increase in firms reporting they are concerned with AIDS, he said during a pre-publication briefing in London.

Seventy-two per cent of companies in those regions now have formal and informal policies to combat the scourge, Bloom added. “Firms act when the epidemic is right in their face,” Bloom concluded. “It looks like firms are not ahead of the AIDS curve.” The report ends by recommending that businesses better understand their risk exposure and learn to manage this from local good practices. A key priority, in both high and low prevalence countries, is to establish a policy based on non-discrimination and confidentiality, it concluded. Campaigners welcomed the example of Anglo American, the international mining and natural resources company, which estimates an HIV prevalence rate of 24 per cent in its 130,000-strong southern African workforce. Over the last two years, the company has implemented extensive voluntary counselling and testing for HIV infection, coupled with antiretroviral therapy for employees whose HIV infection leads to AIDS, the WEF’s Taylor said. Over 90 per cent of the 2,200 Anglo American employees who have accessed and remained on treatment are well and have returned to normal work.

“Our growing experience shows that effective action on HIV/AIDS is synonymous with good business management and leads to more profitable and sustainable operations,” said Brian Brink, senior vice president for health at Anglo American.