‘AIDS Is Bad for Business’

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By Mbatjiua Ngavirue Windhoek Private sector companies can stop AIDS at their businesses, says Dr Brian Brink of Anglo American Corporation. “AIDS is bad for business. If you can get rid of this disease it’s going to be good for your business,” he advised local businesspeople. Brink, who is Group Senior Vice President for Health at Anglo American was speaking at a business breakfast meeting held in Windhoek Friday morning. The meeting was organised by the Namibia Business Coalition On AIDS (NABCOA) in partnership with the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS. Dr Brink said it made him angry to find people either sick or dying in clinics when he travelled around southern Africa. The necessary tools to stop the epidemic were available and none of the suffering that was happening should be taking place. Treatments that really worked were available and it was now known that prevention works. “There is no excuse for us to be sitting with this burden of disease. Namibia has a manageable population of only 1.8 million and the country can stop AIDS,” Brink said. He pointed out that if one could not measure a problem one could not deal with it effectively. The first entry point for a good AIDS response at businesses was testing for HIV/AIDS. There was a need for early diagnosis, because if diagnosis was late there was little that could be done. Treatment also became complicated and expensive if it started too late. It was therefore essential to get the diagnosis early before opportunistic infections set in. “We have made testing too difficult, too complicated and too longwinded,” Brink complained. Dr Brink was full of praise for the new OraQuick oral HIV diagnosis kit, which has recently come onto the market. The testing kit consists of a small spatula that is used to scrap along the inside of the mouth to collect a sample, which is then dipped into a diagnostic bottle. The result becomes available almost immediately without the nastiness of needles or blood being drawn. The OraQuick test works by detecting HIV antibodies that may be present in the saliva and mucous membranes of the mouth. The OraQuick test is still undergoing testing by Namibian health authorities, and has not yet received official approval for use in Namibia. It might be approved for use in Namibia as early as September, according to an official from the Ministry of Health and Social Services at the meeting. Like existing HIV tests the OraQuick test is not however meant for self-testing, but has to be administered by trained personnel. “It is good news if they get that test result now. If it was me and I was positive I would be happy to know,” Brink said. The target for private sector businesses should be that 100 percent of their workforces know their HIV/AIDS status. Employers needed to know how many of their employees were infected this year and the next. The challenge was that in the year after that, there should be no new infections. He argued that there was no longer any excuse available not to fight HIV/AIDS. Businesses could no longer use cost as an excuse because there was so much donor money available to fight HIV/AIDS. Employers could make sure that their employees did not get sick and that they did not die without treatment. He urged businesses to aim for what he called his three zeros, which are zero new infections, zero babies born with HIV and zero people becoming sick or dying from AIDS. The news about HIV/AIDS was positive all around because new drugs would become available for treatment, and perhaps even a vaccine in the near future. His own company, Anglo American has 3 700 employees on HIV/AIDS treatment. The result is that absenteeism, death and TB infections are down dramatically. For voluntary testing to become accepted among employees there was a need to ensure confidentiality was respected. “There needs to be a climate of trust and respect for human rights. You also won’t get people to go for testing unless it is easy and efficient,” he said. According to Brink, the voluntary uptake of testing was often the single most important indicator of the effectiveness of an HIV/AIDS programme within a company. He cited the example of Anglo American’s Goedehoop coalmine, which introduced a company-wide policy of voluntary testing a few years ago. Within its workforce of 8 000 employees it discovered 33 new infections last year, which it considered a “disaster”. The target was zero new infections, but without testing it could have been hundreds of new infections. Goedehoop was nevertheless rated the most profitable coalmine in the world, which showed that even with the burden of disease you could still be competitive, he said. “When you have good AIDS management, it’s a sign of good management throughout your company,” Brink summed up.