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S. African Firm to Provide AIDS Drugs to Workers - 2002-08-06

South African mining giant Anglo American says it will make anti-AIDS treatment available to all its employees. The move is being welcomed as one of the first corporate efforts in southern Africa to curb the disease.

Anglo American and its subsidiaries will make anti-retroviral medicines available to employees who do not already have access to the drugs through their health insurance programs.

Anti-retrovirals do not cure AIDS, but they can keep many AIDS patients healthy far longer than they would otherwise be. The drugs can have serious side effects and they are expensive, costing more than $150 a month per person.

The offer extends to Anglo American employees around the world. But company officials say most of the affected workers are likely to be in southern Africa, where the company employs roughly 134,000 people.

Up to one-quarter of them are believed to be infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

Anglo American senior vice president for medical affairs Brian Brink says the cost is not only affordable, but necessary. "When therapy is available that worldwide experience is telling us works, when we know the prices of the drugs are coming down, the side effects are much more manageable than they were originally, all the reasons for saying it's untenable to stand by and watch while people die when you know that in fact there is a treatment which is effective and lifesaving," said the company official.

Mr. Brink acknowledges that the company's reasons for making anti-retrovirals available are not entirely altruistic. He says the move is an investment in the Anglo American workforce. With access to the lifesaving drugs, skilled workers with HIV can remain productive longer, saving the company from having to train new employees to replace those who die or get too sick to work.

Mr. Brink also says having treatment available may help fight the powerful stigma that keeps many people from disclosing their HIV-positive status. He hopes more people will take part in Voluntary Counseling and Testing programs (VCT).

"Clearly the problem with getting VCT programs going has been that, if you test HIV positive, well, what then? What this does is give employees who are HIV positive, or think they may be HIV positive, renewed hope that you can live with HIV, you don't have to die with it," said Mr. Brink. "So I think it makes a profound difference to the whole issue of stigma and discrimination. This is what's going to help put that to one side and say the care and support is there for you."

The South African National Union of Mineworkers has welcomed Anglo American's move. Union spokesman Moferefere Lokorotsoana says it challenges other mining companies to follow suit, to fight the epidemic that threatens to cripple the industry if not brought under control.

"We don't know in terms of numbers. However, what we know is it's serious enough to warrant a clearer response from the entire industry," said Mr. Lokorotsoana. "It is serious enough that everybody who has anything to do with the industry has to contribute and begin to take it as such. ... While we are saying yes, we do welcome what Anglo American has actually done, we should be then challenging everybody else and saying, how much more can we actually do in terms of dealing with the problem?"

The union is calling for an industry-wide HIV summit to coordinate a strategy for fighting AIDS. Mr. Brink at Anglo American agrees that it will take more than a single company to turn the tide of the epidemic.

He calls on others within the mining industry as well as governments to join in the battle.