With reports that Africa is making strides in the HIV/Aids war after 20 million deaths in three decades, the role that corporations are playing in confronting the disease can no longer be ignored.
Sub-Saharan Africa bears the heaviest global HIV burden since 23 million people living with the disease make their homes in the region, according to USAid Country Health Profile 2011. However, the good news is that deaths from HIV/Aids are on the decline as anti-retroviral therapy and prevention of mother-to-child transmission increase with organisations increasing awareness to tame rising healthcare costs.
Asunta Wagura, the executive director of Kenya Network of Women with Aids (Kenwa), said HIV/Aids affects employees and their organisations, therefore there is need to take initiatives to deal with the disease.
Speaking to the Business Daily in Nairobi, she said majority of people living with HIV are aged between 15-49 and at the crest of their industrious and productive years; if the population with the disease rises it will have a negative impact on businesses and economies. “Organisations have now come up with HIV workplace policies to guide them on how deal with issues of employee rights, benefits, education and support services in relation to HIV/Aids,” she said.
These policies call for overall considerations of the possible impact of the disease on productivity plus well-being of employees and to look for opportunities to boost awareness and to limit the risks of new infections, re-infections as well as mitigating the social and economic impacts, she said.
Organisations are becoming responsive to the needs of infected and affected persons, in line with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Code of Practice on HIV/Aids and World of Work (2001).
A new research conducted partially in Kenya, showed that new infections can be reduced by more than 96 per cent when a person with HIV is on effective medications, the role employers play in ensuring workers access anti-retroviral drugs and are insured cannot be underestimated.
Total Kenya and its subsidiary companies based in Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho and Swaziland, for instance, are seeking to reduce the social and economic impact of HIV/Aids through proactive workplace programmes.
Total Kenya’s human resources and administration manager Adele Tura says the company’s aim is to scale up the war against the disease by creating awareness, encouraging behavioural change and ensuring that all employees are treated with fairness and equality.
“Peer educators together with HR department support the workplace programme dubbed BE ALIVE. Our internal newsletter Mambo has a space specifically dedicated to cover the BE ALIVE topical issues for the quarter. We also conduct VCT clinics at the work place from time to time. We support families living with HIV/Aids through visits and donations from our employees,” he said.
“To enhance confidentiality we have an arrangement with Aga Khan Hospital for treatment of staff and dependants through a specialised clinic that ensures the identity of the patient is not known to Total Kenya,” Mr Tura said.
Though statistics on economic impact of HIV/Aids in Africa are difficult, to find, various studies show that Aids can slow down growth to varying degrees. Some of the hardest-hit nations may lose over eight per cent of GDP growth annually and per capita consumption may fall even further. By dipping service delivery, it affects both savings and spending.
Ms Wagura points out that governments have also not been left behind in the fight against the disease.
For instance, the Kenyan government has developed the National Code of Practice on HIV/ Aids in the work place which acts as a guide in developing all the other policies in organisations and businesses.
The Constitution includes the HIV/ Aids Prevention and Control Act (2006), which provides guidance on all on HIV-related matters and the Employment Act (2007) which stipulates equal rights for all employees among other laws.
Findings by the HIV Prevention Trials Network recently showed that if the government revises Aids policies to get one million people on medication by 2015 (323,000 above the current pace of enrolment), new infections would decline by 31 per cent.
This would also mean reduced over all costs by more than one third and this for sure would make good business sense for any company.
“An end to Aids is within our grasp,” stated Health Global Access Project (GAP) Director Paul Davis. GAP is an organisation involved in global campaigns against HIV/Aids.
“The only sustainable, cost effective solution is to halt new infections, and the sooner we update national guidelines to extend treatment-as-prevention to all people living with HIV in Kenya who need medication, the cheaper the cost of stopping this epidemic,” he said.
These national guidelines have been reflected by companies who provide anti-retroviral drugs to HIV positive employees and their dependants, while pursuing non-discriminatory policies in response to challenges that influence performance and production.
With HIV/Aids prevalence rate at 14.3 per cent in Zambia for instance, most organisations are putting in place methods to combat the disease after realisation that such a move is important in preserving the dignity of those infected or affected by the condition.
Others have gone a step further by carrying out corrective measures on those who harass those who live with HIV and promoting safe working environment thus reducing the stigma which was initially associated with the condition.
In Namibia, turning a job applicant down on grounds of his HIV status is slowly becoming a thing of the past, and could be made criminal soon. If such a person is still physically fit to do the work, companies are encouraged to hire him.
Even as this year’s theme of “Getting to Zero” on new infections, discrimination and Aids-related deaths is beaming, the business sector have also played a major role in ensuring that HIV prevalence either decreased or remained stable over the past several years in Africa.