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AIDS Not Yet Seen as Business Problem in East Africa - Survey - 2004-02-10

A private business survey shows most companies in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia have no idea how many of their employees are infected with the HIV virus, and few see AIDS as their problem.

Most of the 216 eastern African companies surveyed by the accounting giant PricewaterhouseCoopers had not attempted to find out how many of their employees are infected with HIV/AIDS.

The company's survey, released Tuesday, said those that did make their own estimates cited HIV/AIDS prevalence rates far below the national average.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' country leader, Charles Muchene, said most companies are taking what he calls the "ostrich approach" to AIDS. "I think a lot of businesses still see this as a social or a health issue, perhaps something that has got little to do with business, and they see this as a problem for some other people out there to deal with," he said.

From July to September last year, the accounting firm asked more than 50 companies in each of the four countries how they were responding to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Eighty-eight percent of the companies said they provide medical coverage for their employees, but almost one-third of them exclude HIV/AIDS from coverage.

One in 10 companies asked prospective employees to take an HIV test as a condition of employment, while 83 percent said they do not discriminate against HIV-positive employees.

About 39 percent of the companies surveyed said they have an HIV/AIDS policy, consisting mostly of prevention programs and offering employees anti-retroviral drug treatments.

PricewaterhouseCoopers' Mr. Muchene said businesses need to know more about how HIV/AIDS affect their earnings. "Very few businesses have sat back to try and assess the impact of HIV/AIDS on their business," he said, "and if you do not understand the impact of the pandemic on your business, then you're not likely to do anything."

He said some of the costs of HIV/AIDS for business include absenteeism, more frequent recruitment and training, medical fees and a loss of reputation, if they are seen as oblivious to HIV prevalence among their workers and in the surrounding community.

PricewaterhouseCoopers partner Roger Bebbington said strategies to deal with the pandemic need to come from the top. "We are urging that the chairman of the board, or the CEO, with the board's approval, must take leadership, if they're going to have any impact at all, and generally to seek to collaborate in a much wider sense," he said. "There's no organization that can deal with the impact of HIV/AIDS on its own survival without collaboration."

He urged businesses to share information with one another and with government and private agencies as they formulate their HIV/AIDS policies.