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Battling AIDS with Business

  • Joe DeCapua

Dr. Brian Brink, CMO, Anglo-American (De Capua)

Dr. Brian Brink, CMO, Anglo-American (De Capua)

Africa’s private sector is being asked to play a bigger role in fighting HIV/AIDS. The Gift from Africa initiative calls on businesses to invest in the continent by investing in health. The initiative was discussed at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington.

The initiative is a partnership between the private sector and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Sixty percent of the fund’s allocations go to Africa. And it’s set a goal to save 10 million lives and prevent up to 180 million new infections over the next four years. However, to do that officials say they need help from private companies across Africa.

Dr. Brian Brink of South Africa is the longest serving member of the Global Fund’s board, but he’s also a businessman. Brink is senior vice president and chief medical officer of the Anglo-American, one of the world’s largest mining companies. Ninety percent of its operations are in developing countries, many in Africa.

“When we mine in developing countries, we meet the people.and we see the burden of disease in communities. Very often mines are not where the big cities are. The mines are often in the more rural areas - places where health services are perhaps weakest, where the burden of disease has the biggest impact on communities. And guess what? That burden of disease affects our businesses,” he said.

It affected Anglo-American's productivity and efficiency.

“It’s no good as a business to just stand back and look at government and say, look, fix this health problem. Sort it up, because we want to get on with business. It doesn’t work like that. We learned that with the AIDS epidemic around the turn of the millennium,” he said.

Anglo-American offered free AIDS treatment for all of its employees beginning around 2002.

“We didn’t know exactly what we were promising,” Brink said, “but the result was quite extraordinary. Something which was a huge risk to our business – over 20 percent of our employees were HIV infected. They were getting sick and they were dying. You can’t run a business like that. Bringing treatment turned that threat around 180 degrees. In retrospect now, 10 years later, and you look back it was one of the smartest business decisions we ever made.”

Brink said HIV/AIDS no longer poses a risk to his company. Over 90 percent of employees take an AIDS test every year.

“We encourage our people now to start treatment for HIV as soon as they’re ready. We don’t wait for them to get sick. We don’t wait for them to get TB. We don’t run the risk that they’re going to spread the infection further. We deal with it. Just get on and treat it,” he said.

The cost of AIDS, he said, is manifested in employee absenteeism, in paying benefits when people get sick, disabled or die. What’s more, skilled workers are lost and new workers need to be trained.

“Those costs make up 95 percent of the cost of AIDS. The cost of treatment is only five percent of the cost of AIDS. Why just spend the five percent and avoid the other 95 percent. I mean it’s simple. It’s an absolute no brainer,” he said.

He said when business deals with the burden of disease upfront an HIV infected employee can do the same work as an uninfected worker. Brink says business in Africa should engage with the Global Fund.

Mozambique health minister, Dr. Alexandre Manguele, also spoke at the Gift from Africa session at AIDS 2012. He says his country is feeling the burden of HIV among its workforce.

“Many people move from Mozambique to South African to work in mining. But many people get sick. They come back to Mozambique very sick usually with AIDS, with tuberculosis and others, but mainly those ones,” he said.

They’re put on treatment when they return home.

“But after a few weeks or months people feel better. They give up the treatment. They disappear and they go back again to South Africa. The same happens with tuberculosis,” he said.

It becomes an endless cycle of ineffective treatment, creating the risk of drug resistance and a further spread of the disease.

The Mozambican health minister called for a regional approach to treating HIV/AIDS, rather than having different drug regimens in each country. He says a partnership between the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and African businesses could help establish an innovative approach to tackling those diseases.