October 2001

Report Urges Business to Address AIDS in Africa

By Todd Zwillich

WASHINGTON (Reuters Health) - A consortium of multinational corporations has released a report encouraging companies doing business in Africa to make the fight against HIV and AIDS part of their business plans.

The report recommends that businesses find strategies to address AIDS in the communities where they operate, citing the incredible impact the epidemic is having on the labor force and on markets on the continent.

As many as three quarters of the world's 36 million persons infected with HIV reside in Africa, according to UN figures. Experts have long warned that skyrocketing adult infection rates--as high as 20% in some sub-Saharan nations--will soon cripple economies and destroy productivity there.

``HIV/AIDS is causing declining productivity, rising production costs and declining company profits,'' according to the report, released Friday by the Corporate Council on Africa, a group of some 180 multinational firms.

The epidemic may also rob Africans of the income needed to buy goods, further undermining markets, according to the report. ``Reduced earnings, higher expenditures on healthcare in the productive years, and premature death combine to diminish savings rates and disposal income,'' it states.

The report also calls on companies to provide HIV testing and education to their employees on the continent and to find ''cost effective and simple solutions'' to deal with AIDS among their workers and in local African communities. Firms are encouraged to form partnerships with non-governmental organizations working to tackle spreading infections in Africa.

``An aggressive and early response (to HIV/AIDS) by corporations will be effective in the long term and will create a competitive advantage,'' said Dr. Donald E. Wilson, who co-chaired the task force that authored the report.

The group singled out pharmaceutical manufacturers to provide antiretroviral drugs at the cheapest price possible.

The council also called on President Bush to ``commit significant United States resources'' to the global AIDS fund announced this summer by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. The president at that time committed the US to initially spend $200 million on the fund, though the House of Representatives has already approved $250 million for the fund.

Meanwhile, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), a vocal advocate of international AIDS funding in the House, on Thursday began circulating a letter to lawmakers calling on the president to approve $1 billion in emergency funding for the global AIDS project.

Annan has asked for large corporations to play a key role in funding and implementing the UN AIDS effort. The fund's representatives are likely to get mixed reactions from companies, depending on how deeply affected they are by the AIDS epidemic in Africa, according to Dr. Jeffrey L. Sturchio, executive director of public affairs for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for Merck & Co., Inc.

Companies that are losing business or productivity because of AIDS are likely to participate for business reasons, while those that aren't may or may not participate out of altruism.

``You'll see a spectrum of reactions among companies. (With) some it'll be altruism, some will do nothing,'' Sturchio said in an interview. ``They want to see that, 'if we make an investment of X hundreds of thousands of dollars in workplace HIV education, what will the return on that investment be,''' he said.

Merck and several other drug makers have recently cut the prices of their anti-HIV drugs for poor countries, and several have begun or continued infrastructure-building programs to make distribution of the drugs possible.