by James Lamont and David Firn
Anglo American, the London-based resources group, cannot afford to supply antiretroviral drugs to all its HIV/AIDS infected workers in South Africa, according to the company's medical department.
Brian Brink, Anglo American's senior vice-president (medical), said the company's 14 000 senior staff would receive antiretroviral treatment as part of their medical insurance, but that the provision of drug treatment for lower income employees was too expensive.
About 21% of Anglo American's employees in South Africa are HIV-positive. The company employs 160 000 people in sub-Saharan Africa, the bulk of them in South Africa, which has one of the highest HIV/AIDS infection rates in the world with about 250 000 people forecast to die of related diseases this year.
The obstacles to providing therapy are huge. The more I look at it, it's not possible, said Brink. Medicines at cost were too expensive, strict adherence to drug protocols uncertain and the extent of a company's obligation to treat current and ex-employees and their dependants too daunting, he said.
An antiretroviral treatment costs about R1 500 a month.
It could save on absenteeism and improved productivity. The saving you achieve can be substantial, but we really don't know how it will stack up. We feel that the cost will be greater than the saving, he said.
Anglo American hopes to launch a pilot project in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline, the UK pharmaceutical company, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, before the end of the year.
But for wider distribution of drugs to employees and their dependants, Anglo American said it would have to seek additional funding from international donor agencies.
GlaxoSmithKline showed its willingness to help South Africa at the weekend by giving the rights to its latest HIV/AIDS medicines to a local generic producer to encourage greater access to treatment.
The government has insisted that HIV/AIDS drug treatments are too expensive for provision through the public health system.
Most large employers, including mining companies, have also shied away from costly commitments to providing antiretroviral treatment, restricting their use to pregnant mothers and children.
On Monday, GlaxoSmithKline was among a number of UK drugs companies that met Clare Short, British minister for international development, in an effort to negotiate a system that would make a broad range of medicines more affordable to developing countries.
The companies say they want to see safeguards to stop cheap drugs filtering back to developed markets.
Source: Financial Times via Business Day, 9 October 2001