South African Companies Increasingly Implement HIV/AIDS Prevention, Testing, Treatment Strategies for Work Force
South African companies are "fine-tuning" HIV/AIDS treatment, testing and prevention strategies to minimize the disease's impact on their workforce, the Financial Times reports. Death and illness caused by HIV/AIDS can lead to lost productivity, higher insurance costs, increased absenteeism and more recruitment and training costs, all of which can be a "big potential drain on profits," according to the Times (Reed, Financial Times, 10/6). Approximately 25% of the country's economically active individuals are HIV-positive, according to the Times (Reed, Financial Times, 10/6). About five million HIV-positive people live in South Africa. Although plans are being developed for a national antiretroviral drug program, the government so far has not provided the drugs through the country's public health system. Therefore, many companies have decided to provide the drugs free of charge to their employees, according to the Times (Financial Times, 10/6). Mining conglomerate Anglo American in 2002 announced that it would cover the cost of antiretroviral drugs for any of its 130,000 employees in South Africa who do not already qualify for treatment under other medical aid programs. An estimated 23% of its workforce -- or 18,000 people -- is HIV-positive (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 6/2). Other mining companies, banks and manufacturers -- "motivated by a muddled mixture of good intentions and public relations considerations" -- have also begun treatment programs, according to the Times.
Affecting the Bottomline
However, there is now a new "sense of urgency" about the epidemic in South Africa, as more workers progress to AIDS and are no longer able to be productive, according to the Times. HIV/AIDS consultancies, such as Johannesburg-based FutureForesight, are making the case for treatment directly to corporate boards. "The reason to treat should be because it's economically viable," Chris Barker, head of FutureForesight, said, adding, "If you don't recognize the financial benefit now, someone could turn off the benefit two years down the line." Sean Jelley, CEO of Lifeworks, a South African HIV/AIDS consultancy that calculates the disease's costs for companies, said, "the biggest cost of all is increased benefits -- group life, group disability, funeral benefits and medical insurance."
Emphasis on Testing
Companies have recently shifted focus from HIV prevention to early intervention, urging more employees to get tested for the virus, according to the Times. "A year ago it was about starting out and getting people on treatment," Brian Brink, head of Anglo American's corporate HIV/AIDS effort, said, adding, "Now HIV testing is the focus and the critical thing which leads to the programs." It is illegal in South Africa for companies to force employees to be tested for HIV, but companies like Anglo American encourage more testing so that they can calculate HIV prevalence in their workforce. There were only 661 Anglo American employees enrolled in the company's antiretroviral drug program as of last month because "stigma, discrimination and denial" surrounding HIV/AIDS have prevented many workers from seeking treatment or being tested, according to the Times. Brink said that about 20% of Anglo American's workforce knows their HIV status. Anglo American, with help from health economists, is conducting an in-house economic-impact study on HIV/AIDS that will be completed in three years, according to the Times (Financial Times, 10/6).