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Business Battles HIV/AIDS - 2002-10-03

HIV/AIDS is most often viewed as a health issue, but since it has a major impact on the economies of many developing nations, it is also seen as a business problem. VOA English to Africa reporter Joe De Capua tells us what the international business community is doing to fight the pandemic.

From a strictly economic standpoint, HIV/AIDS is bad for business, harming both productivity and profitability. That cold, hard look at the bottom line helps get the message across to company owners, officials and investors that the pandemic is everybody’s business.

Ben Plumley is executive director of the Global Business Council on HIV/ AIDS.

He says, "This is really the issue of our generation. And if look back over your career, whether it’s a corporate career or however, where were you? And encouraging businesses to be part of this massive mobilization becomes absolutely critical."

One year ago the council had just seventeen members. Its membership roll now has more than eighty listings of international firms, most of whom have interests in the developing world.

The organization says business firms can respond to HIV/AIDS in several ways, including workplace prevention and care programs.

He says, "For companies with large workforces in heavily affected regions, clearly their workers are going to be at risk of HIV. And the first thing we ask them is do you know the rates of infection within your own workforce? More often than not people don’t know it. Something they’ve tried to sweep under the carpet or put their head in the sand about. So, really getting them to think about the impact right now inside their workforce – realizing that as people fall sick – as their family members fall sick – there will be increased absenteeism."

The Global Business Council on HIV/AIDS says as more employees fall sick, companies are likely to “bear the rising cost of health insurance, sick leave and funeral expenses.” In addition, there’s the cost of hiring and training new workers.

He says, "I think one of the most graphic ways you can demonstrate this is to look at the mining industry in southern Africa. The mining industry is essentially the economic driver of economies in countries like Botswana and South Africa. And some of the major mines estimate they have over twenty-five percent of their workforce infected with HIV/AIDS. And when you consider that they employ over a hundred thousand people per company, this really gives you a sense of the scale of the epidemic."

The council says business can use its “core strengths of creativity and flexibility” to fight HIV/AIDS. It says “business can do things faster and more effectively than anyone else.” And its leaders can speak out against stigma and discrimination. The council says some companies are even beginning to offer anti-retroviral drugs to their employees who are infected with the AIDS virus.

Executive Director Ben Plumley says in many developing countries, businesses must take HIV/AIDS into account in both their short range and long range planning.

He says, "To be honest, there’s nothing like AIDS. AIDS is unprecedented in human history and we’re really only at the start of seeing the impact AIDS is going to have. And I don’t want to sound as if this is end of the world stuff, but really, this is very serious."

The leadership of the Global Council on HIV/AIDS includes Juergen Schrempp, chairman of the automaker Daimler Chrysler. Richard Holbrooke, former US ambassador to the United Nations, serves as the council’s president, and is credited with getting more businesses involved in the campaign.