New ally in S. Africa's AIDS battle
Mining giant announces plan to pay for employee treatment.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
While the government of South Africa wrestles with how to deal with the AIDS epidemic, the nation's largest employer can't wait.Skip to next paragraph
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Anglo American, a mining conglomerate here, estimates that 32,000 workers - 1 of every 5 employees - carry the virus. Faced with the costs of caring for and replacing a dying workforce, Anglo announced this week that it will begin providing free or deeply discounted anti-AIDS drugs to employees and their families.
With the disease beginning to affect their bottom lines, South African companies are starting to see AIDS as an economic as well as a humanitarian disaster.
Anglo American is the biggest of several companies taking the lead in providing treatments that mitigate, but do not cure, the symptoms of the disease. And they are giving new hope to one of the most AIDs-ravaged populations in the world.
"Companies are realizing that to invest money into managing the HIV/AIDS pandemic will be cheaper than addressing the aftermath of AIDS," says Brian Wasmuth, head of the South African Chamber of Business HIV/AIDS program.
Access to anti-retroviral drugs, which transform AIDS from a death sentence to a chronic illness, has become a high-profile issue in South Africa, where few of the nearly 5 million people believed to be infected can afford the drug regimes.
Last month, the South African government forced international pharmaceutical companies to withdraw a three-year-old lawsuit aimed at blocking the importation of cheaper generic AIDS drugs to the country. The campaign for access to affordable anti-HIV drugs has moved to Kenya, where activists urged Kenya's Parliament Thursday to pass a bill to allow exemptions to international patent law.
But South Africa's government has indicated that a publicly funded anti-retroviral program won't be coming anytime soon. Though the drug cocktails are widely used in Europe and the US, the South African government remains skeptical of their safety and cites a lack of infrastructure to distribute medicines and monitor patients.
"The arguments of capacity and infrastructure don't really apply in the same way to the private sector," says Mark Heywood, a lawyer with the AIDS Law Project at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. "It is theoretically possible to roll out key medical intervention to a large number of people within a short period of time."
Though AIDS activists and the government laud the efforts of Anglo and other firms to provide AIDS treatment to employees, both warned that the provision of anti-retrovirals is only part of an effective AIDS treatment scheme. "It makes very little sense to do anti-retrovirals if you're not doing prevention and managing the other related diseases," says Jo-Anne Collinge, Department of Health spokeswoman.
Brian Brink, Anglo's vice president of medical affairs, says that although details of the program are still being worked out, Anglo is committed to providing anti-retrovirals to employees and their dependents and hopes to include Anglo subsidiaries in the plan.
Anglo declined to give a cost estimate. The company is still in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies to purchase the medications, either from multinationals, or from the Indian-based generic producer Cipla, Ltd.