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Firms ignoring threat of HIV/AIDS on employees, says study

Although HIV/AIDS is considered the most serious health and development issue in East Africa, the scourge is yet to become a major issue for leading business firms in the region. Only a few firms in the region have a formal HIV/AIDS policy, and just over half have HIV prevention programmes for their employees, a new survey conducted in four countries by PricewaterhouseCoopers, a leading audit consulting firm HAS found. The 2003 survey examined the private sector's responses in the context of curbing the pandemic. Entitled "HIV/AIDS: What is business doing?", it was based on interviews conducted between July and September last year with managers of 216 companies in various sectors in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, and Zambia. The findings showed that most companies had not attempted to establish the prevalence of HIV among their staff. Those prepared to hazard a guess tended to be overoptimistic with regard to the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among their staff, the study noted. "This lack of insight is despite the fact that many companies are reporting deaths due to HIV/AIDS," the report stated. "In some cases, organisations have been badly affected by AIDS-related mortality. However, most companies do not appreciate that mortality of between 1 and 2 percent per annum may signify a high level of HIV/AIDS infection," it said. Most organisations reported having lost less than 5 percent of their workforce to HIV/AIDS in the last five years, a figure much lower than the overall prevalence rates in the respective countries. The rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence in the four countries vary, with official figures showing prevalence among pregnant women in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia raging between 10 and 25 percent. Only in Uganda, which is considered a unique case in Africa, has prevalence been brought down to 6.4 percent in 2001, having peaked at 21 percent in 1991. These findings meant that firms in the region are yet to acknowledge the potential threat HIV/AIDS had on their business, the study noted. It urged firms in the region to shift from their current "overly optimistic" attitude, and adopt a "healthy dose of realism" towards HIV/AIDS prevalence among their employees, and thereby respond more effectively to the pandemic. "Organisations in general are overly optimistic and work on an assumption that they have lower rates of HIV/AIDS prevalence," the study said. "It is highly unlikely that the rate of HIV/AIDS prevalence deviates materially in any company from the national profile. Until organisations accept more realistic rates and perceive a more accurate extent of their problem, little will be done to tackle it," it added. According to the UN's International Labour Organisation (ILO}, at least 26 million of the 42 million people around the world infected with HIV are workers aged between 15 and 49 - in the prime of their working lives. The ILO, which also has established a Code of Practice for HIV/AIDS in the workplace, has recognised HIV/AIDS as a workplace issue, not only because it affects their productivity but also because the workplace is considered to be vital in curbing the impact of the pandemic.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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