Aids hits white-collar workers

The HIV infection rate in South Africa’s workforce has stabilised at a very high level, but the death rate is beginning to climb.

Sin Dennis, managing member of Litha-Lethu Consulting, says South Africa has one of the highest levels of infection in the world, even though awareness levels among the workforce have increased and HIV/Aids education is working — to an extent. “However, we cannot afford to be complacent,” says Dennis.

The levels of HIV are highest among women as they are many times more likely to acquire the virus than men. Moreover, HIV is most devastating among the economically active, namely people 25 to 45 years old.

Studies also indicate that in predominantly white-collar environments those at greatest risk tend to be well-educated people with money. “Unfortunately, they have the idea that ‘it won’t happen to me’,” Dennis says.

As a change consultancy, Dennis’s firm tries to convey to organisations that the advent of HIV means that companies have to change the way in which they do business. “HIV has to be factored into your strategic planning as a risk.

“Replacing skilled and experienced people is difficult and it becomes more so as you move up the executive ladder,” says Dennis.

Dr Brad Beira, senior executive at Aon South Africa, says that in some companies the prevalence of HIV-infected people ranges from 2% to 35%, with a 50% to 90% annual participation in voluntary counselling and testing initiatives. He says there are significant variations from one company to another and in different geographic areas. There is also a dramatic variation in the numbers of people that allow testing.

Judith Bester, GM of Aganang, says business has tended to regard HIV/Aids as a government responsibility. Apart from a few standouts such as De Beers and Anglo American, companies that started HIV/Aids programmes about 10 years ago, most businesses have been slow to act on the challenge of HIV in the workplace.

“They failed to realise the long-term significance of the disease,” says Bester. “While people were ill and not showing the effects, management thought HIV was a problem among the unemployed and not among their employees.

“Now organisations are seeing the effect on their businesses operationally in terms of increased absenteeism, reductions in productivity and increases in ill health and death benefits that have to be paid out.

“While there is high unemployment in South Africa, the pool of skilled people is very limited and it is this loss of skills that is probably the biggest issue facing business in an HIV world.”

Bester says Markinor released statistics last year that show that the incidence of HIV in the workplace has increased from 11% to 19%.

Furthermore, the group with the highest increase in the incidence of HIV was professional people.

“The rise in the incidence among professionals is coming from a low base, but it emphasises the fact that companies cannot simply target blue-collar workers with their HIV programmes. The mobile men with money have become a high-risk group.

“As a group they are riding the wave and consider themselves immune to the disease. They do not tend to associate with sex workers but rather with younger women they meet – and they think this makes them safe.

“However, the fact is that the moment you are sexually active you are at risk,” Bester says.

Dr Caroline Maslo, medical director of Prime Cure Wellness, says that although there is a lack of proper studies, those that have been conducted indicate that an average of 18,8% of the workforce is infected.

“Depending on the company and the industry in which it is active, the level of infection can range between 10% and 59% of the organisation’s employees,” says Maslo.

She says there is no truth to the myth that HIV is confined to blue-collar workers and infection is found at every level within an organisation.

In South Africa about 500 000 people are taking antiretroviral drugs, including treatment at NGOs and private sector clinics. “There has been significant progress compared to three or four years ago when there was almost no one receiving treatment,” says Maslo.

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Andrew Gillingham
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