Africa’s businesses are a key weapon in the war against HIV/AIDS but thus far have not done enough to combat the epidemic, Richard Holbrooke said on Thursday.
The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who now heads the New York-based Global Business Coalition (GBC) on HIV/AIDS said routine HIV testing could help roll back the disease in sub-Saharan Africa - the region worst affected by the global pandemic.
“The most urgent long-term task is to prevent the spread of the disease, the only way to stop that is by testing,” he said during a tour of the Cullinan diamond mine north of Pretoria, owned by the world’s biggest diamond producer De Beers.
Holbrooke said De Beers, 45 percent owned by Anglo American , was an example on fighting HIV/AIDS.
Ten percent of De Beers’ staff, or about 1,000 workers, are infected with the virus and the firm is among the first to offer anti-retroviral drugs to HIV-positive workers and their spouses, even after they leave their jobs.
De Beers showcased its programme for coping with HIV/AIDS, ranging from ARV drugs to peer counsellors, to GBC members drawn from as far as the United States and China. The GBC groups about 200 international companies.
Holbrooke later visited South Africa’s power utility Eskom, which has its own HIV programme, and will meet with dozens of owners of small and medium enterprises on Friday to try and help them formulate a plan they can afford to help combat AIDS.
GBC officials said they were looking at suggestions including encouraging small businesses to group together to get better insurance rates, buy bulk condoms or medicines, and share information on AIDS case management.
South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the world, and the U.N. estimates 5 million of its 45 million population are infected with the virus. In neighbours such as Swaziland and Botswana, up to 40 percent of the adult population carry the virus.
The pandemic has hurt businesses as workers die, requiring others to be hired and trained, or in lost labour owing to sickness. The death toll is rising, especially among the 30-to-50 age group, when workers are at their most economically productive, experts say.
Mining giant AngloGold has forecast that by 2009 AIDS expenses in South Africa could be between 8 and 17 percent of total payroll costs, the Swiss-based World Economic Forum said in a survey on AIDS in Africa in June.
Holbrooke said that while big companies such as De Beers and AngloGold could help, Africa’s real test will be in developing HIV/AIDS programmes in the small firms that employ far more people but have far fewer resources at their disposal.
“Most people in Africa, in South Africa, work in businesses that employ less than 20 people, and these have no real programmes to deal with AIDS. It is very complicated for them because most cannot afford it, so we are here to listen to them and help them figure this out.”
Revision date: July 6, 2011
Last revised: by Jorge P. Ribeiro, MD