ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, May 27, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 52
Financial Times  


Businesses brought into control spread of AIDS

By Dilshani Samaraweera and Esther Williams

Businesses are being asked to take an active interest in containing the spread of HIV/AIDS in Sri Lanka. The country’s strong cultural conservatism in discussing sexual matters, say the experts, are adding to statistical uncertainties. Up-to-the-end of 2005 only 743 people in Sri Lanka were diagnosed HIV positive.

Experts say the number is too good to be true - even when taking into account the good behaviour brought on by strong cultural inhibitions on sex. But while sex is a taboo subject and is not discussed openly, more and more young people are experimenting with it blindly. So doing nothing because the official number of AIDS victims are low, say the experts, is asking for trouble.
Given the potential impact on the economy and business productivity if the numbers of AIDS victims were to increase suddenly, experts are calling on Sri Lanka’s private sector to help change attitudes.

Why Business?
“The ILO (International Labour Organisation) considers HIV/AIDS a workplace issue,” said Dr Indira Hettiarachchi, the national project coordinator of the ILO’s HIV/AIDS Workplace Education Programme, speaking at press conference on HIV/AIDS and the impact on economic development. The press conference was a prelude to the 8th ICAAP ‘HIV/AIDS’ Congress to be held in Colombo from August 19 – 23 this year. The meeting is expected to draw some 3,000 delegates from 60 countries.

The ILO is encouraging business interest in AIDS because most AIDS victims around the world tend to be working age people.Experts also feel that work places are more suitable to educate people about sexual behaviour and safe sex. “Companies should address this issue because it affects the most productive age group and because the workplace is an ideal venue to initiate effective programmes on HIV/AIDS prevention,” said Hettiarachchi.
Encouragingly, last month several groups including the private sector came together to endorse a National Tripartite Declaration on the prevention of HIV/AIDS in workplaces in Sri Lanka in a process facilitated by the ILO.

The declaration endorses the guidelines of the ILO code of practice on HIV/AIDS in the world of work. By signing this declaration, relevant government ministries and institutions, employers’ organizations and trade unions have committed to establish AIDS prevention programmes in workplaces and ensure zero tolerance of stigma and discrimination associated with the disease both in the public and private sectors.

World over, out of the 40.3 million estimated AIDS victims 26 million are working people. When the informal sector is included the estimated number of working age AIDS victims is at least 36 million. The ILO, based on experiences in African and other Asian countries, points out that the spread of AIDS could result in businesses losing skilled workers and years of investment in training and experience. Other costs in terms of absenteeism, frequent sick leave and medical and health insurance, would also increase. At the moment Sri Lanka is not feeling any large scale economic impact from AIDS because of a low number of AIDS victims in the country. The national health budget bears the brunt of the direct costs because of the free heath system. But the experts note the high indirect costs born by AIDS victims and their families.

“In this country most people that divulge that they are HIV positive, lost their employment. They are also subjected to stigma. Even their families are stigmatised,” said Hettiarachchi. “The direct costs are high but the indirect costs are much higher, mainly falling on the family. So a social welfare network has to be provided,” said Dr Amala de Silva, Economist, University of Colombo describing the findings of a UNDP study on AIDS in Sri Lanka conducted in 1997.

Today, 10 years after the 1997 UNDP study, the economic cost of AIDS has gone up drastically and is rising. The direct and indirect cost of AIDS for an urban male is estimated at Rs 2 million today compared to Rs 912,960 in 1997. The direct cost mainly comprises the cost of medical facilities and indirect costs are based on lost earnings from loss of employment.

Societal attitudes in Sri Lanka are adding to the costs. Due to the stigma associated with AIDS most people do not even like to test for HIV. This increases the chances of spreading AIDS and reduces the chances of the victim’s survival. The stigma associated with AIDS also prevents victims from keeping their jobs depriving them of healthcare. “If there was no stigma people will test themselves for HIV earlier. Early diagnosis will increase duration of survival,” said de Silva.

Prevention business
In 2005 the ILO started a pilot project to promote the prevention of HIV/AIDS through the private sector by targeting local companies in the hotel, estate and manufacturing fields. By now 11 out of the 14 targeted companies have developed corporate policies on HIV/AIDS and the ILO is encouraging more companies to start taking an interest in AIDS prevention.

“Companies can develop prevention programmes. This is not just giving lectures to workers. You have to aim at behaviour change. Sexual behaviour can’t be changed easily. So they have to be long term, sustainable programmes and the work environment must be conducive to behavioural change. We can provide the companies with the required technical assistance,” said Hettiarachchi.

A more understanding corporate attitude where AIDS victims are not discriminated by management or told to leave their jobs, is expected to encourage people to get themselves tested for HIV. This would help prevent the spread of AIDS and ensure that AIDS victims have employment and income to live on.

The conference was told that the majority of people who contract the killer HIV/AIDS are in their most productive years, often sole breadwinners of their households. Aside from the untold misery and suffering it causes them, it has been found to have a disastrous impact on the productivity of a country, going far beyond the household and community level by weakening the economy and stifling national development.
The week long ICAAP Colombo summit in August, hosted by the Sri Lankan government, will see critical issues relating to the region being discussed. It brings together politicians, government officials, medical experts, academics, people living with HIV/AIDS, community workers and the media.

Asia's migrant workers need more state help to curb AIDS
KUALA LUMPUR (AP): The spread of AIDS is threatening millions of migrant workers in Asia who lack sufficient access to health services, regional activists said. "For a comprehensive approach to contain HIV/AIDS, the health of not only local populations but also migrant communities needs to be addressed," CARAM Asia, a Malaysian-based coalition of migrant and health groups from 15 countries, said in an open letter to Asian governments on Monday.

There are now about 53 million migrant workers in Asia who are vulnerable to HIV, the virus which causes AIDS, because of their relative lack of access to HIV-prevention programs, health counseling and medical tests, CARAM Asia said. In many cases, migrants found to be HIV-positive are deported without any help or immediate treatment, it added. It did not give estimates of how many migrant workers in Asia are HIV-positive.

Many migrant workers come from poor areas in countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. They often find employment in more affluent Asian nations as housemaids and laborers in plantations, factories and construction sites. According to recent U.N. statistics, about 8.6 million people in Asia are infected with HIV. About 500,000 people in the region die per year from AIDS and financial losses are estimated at US$10 billion (euro7.5 billion) annually.

However, investment in HIV control in Asia remains extremely low at 10 percent of the required US$5 billion (euro3.7 billion) per year, officials have said. The number of people in Asia infected with HIV could be more than double to 20 million in the next five years without a better government response and more funding, they said.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.