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New ally in S. Africa's AIDS battle

Mining giant announces plan to pay for employee treatment.

(Page 2 of 2)

One likely reason mining companies are among the first to embark on anti-retroviral programs is that they already have company medical care systems through which AIDS drugs can be distributed. Another is that the industry, which has a tradition of single-sex hostels served by prostitutes, has been particularly hard-hit by AIDS. Anglo estimates that AIDS will claim 5 percent of its workforce annually for the next nine years.

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The United Nations estimates that by 2010, the virus will reduce South Africa's gross domestic product by 17 percent.

On Thursday, a UN agency said AIDS could kill 26 percent of the labor force in hardest-hit African countries by 2020.

Chris Desmond, a research fellow at the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal, says the initial response of many companies to the AIDS epidemic was to cut benefits in an attempt to insulate themselves from rising medical and life insurance costs.

Now Mr. Desmond says an increasing number of companies are beginning to recognize that providing some level of treatment, even if anti-retrovirals are out of reach, is simply good business.

Dr. Jack Van Niftrik, founder and director of a company called Lifeworks that helps businesses develop HIV/AIDS strategies, says even smaller companies are looking at providing AIDS care.

He is working with a manufacturing company in Kwa-Zulu Natal facing a 60 percent HIV infection rate among its 9,000 employees. Absentee rates are so high, that the company must hire two workers for every position. "They're actually going to go out of business if they don't do something," Dr. Niftrik says. "Medical aid is too expensive, and the state isn't working fast enough."

The company is preparing to implement a comprehensive medical program that will entitle HIV-positive employees to once-a-month doctor visits, regular tests to monitor immune levels, and, if needed, anti-retroviral drugs. The services will be provided through a closed network of doctors similar to a managed care system in the United States.

Niftrik says the program will cost an estimated $7 to $12 per employee and will be financed through company investments in an interest-bearing account for AIDS treatment. Nine other companies are also working to launch similar programs, though not all of them may offer anti-retrovirals.

The South African Chamber of Commerce is also working to develop an AIDS treatment program for its 40,000 member companies similar to the Lifeworks framework. Under the chamber program, AIDS treatment, including anti-retrovirals, would be offered through a network of 150 clinics around the country. The range of services would depend on how much the employer is willing, or able, to pay.

In addition to Anglo's program, another southern African mining company, the Botswana-based diamond firm Debswana, has announced that it will begin paying 90 percent of the costs of AIDS medications for its 6,000 employees and one legal spouse. Owned jointly by the government and Anglo subsidiary DeBeers, Debswana is Botswana's largest employer.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor