NATIONAL NEWS - South Africa has the largest HIV epidemic in the world, with 7.1 million people living with HIV.
A staggering 4 500 South Africans are newly infected every week.
“A large percentage of these people are employed and therefore form the backbone of the South African economy yet workplaces are by and large not doing anything to stop the epidemic,” says Cherie Cawood, CEO of Epicentre - a South African company specialising in public health research projects.
Thirty years into the epidemic we finally have the tools to achieve epidemic control.
Two important tools include HIV treatment, which prevents a person who is virally supressed from transmitting the virus and the other is Voluntary Medical Male Circumcision (VMMC) which reduces transmission by up to 60%.
Although these measures are available, workplaces have not embraced these interventions to protect their employees.
“As part of an urgent programme to reduce HIV transmission in Ladysmith in Kwazulu-Natal, we approached the 25 largest employers in the area and asked them to participate in a medical male circumcision and HIV testing programme – disappointingly 24 out of the 25 refused.
"By refusing to participate in an HIV prevention programme these businesses had not taken into account the long-term cost HIV is going to have on their workplace, South Africa and its people,” explains Cherie.
On average businesses lose 12 days a year for each staff member living with HIV having to queue to collect their monthly medication. In addition, employees living with HIV who are not on ARV medication are vulnerable to an array of opportunistic infections such as shingles, candidiasis (thrush), cancers, TB, pneumonia and many others resulting in an increase in absenteeism and sick leave.
“Workplaces are not islands and are most definitely impacted by the environment around them. If businesses do not look after their respective communities it will negatively impact their bottom line,” says Cherie.
To take back our country from this pandemic, all businesses need to play an active role in preventing new HIV infections. “Each workplace needs to promote HIV testing and ensure all employees who are living with HIV are on treatment to stop transmission. In addition, businesses should encourage all male staff members to get circumcised to protect themselves from HIV infection,” says Cherie.
Currently only 60% of the people living with HIV are on treatment which means that in order to stop the epidemic we need to find the remaining 40% and get them on treatment. “Alone we can do so little but together we can do so much. If businesses don’t take an active part in testing and treating those people living with HIV to reduce the rate of new infections, HIV will continue to take a tremendous toll on our economy and our country for years and generations to come,” concludes Cherie.
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