Anglo American to give staff anti-AIDS drugs

South Africa’s biggest company, diversified miner Anglo American, said on Tuesday it planned to start distributing anti-AIDS drugs to its HIV-positive staff, Reuters reported.

It gave no overall cost estimates of the plan to tackle the disease, which affects around 4.7 million South Africans or around one in every nine citizens.

“Operating companies will now be encouraged…(to make) anti-retroviral treatment (ART) available at company expense to HIV-positive employees,” the company reportedly said.

This would apply to staff who did not have an ART benefit through a medical aid plan and who had progressed to a stage of HIV infection where ART was clinically indicated, Reuters reported.

In Southern Africa, Anglo employs around 90,000 people. Its AngloGold subsidiary has 44,000 staff and diamond miner De Beers, in which it owns a 45% share, employs around 18,000.

South Africa has more people living with HIV/AIDS than any other country, and the government has been criticized for delays in treating the disease effectively.

Anglo spokeswoman Anne Dunn reportedly said the company estimates the group’s HIV/AIDS prevalence rate at around 23%. But she said cost calculations were complicated by the fact that not all HIV-infected employees may need the drugs immediately. And not all staff could be expected to come forward and be tested.

Of the 90,000 staff in Anglo’s southern African operations, around 12,000 are on medical aid plans, Reuters reported.

And, as a reference to how many employees could be expected to take up the ART offer, she said that in De Beers’ Debswana operations only around 13% of staff took up ART in the first year it was made available.

ART is estimated to cost users around $160 a month.

The country’s biggest bullion producer AngloGold has said HIV/AIDS is costing its South African mining operations between $4 and $6 an ounce of gold produced, but that could rise to $9 if the company did nothing to manage the impact of the pandemic.

AngloGold expects to produce a total 5.8 million ounces of gold in 2002, with 3.4 million ounces mined in South Africa.

Anglo did not give a specific timetable for the rollout of ART to its staff, but said it would vary by company and depended on each company’s health facilities, Reuters reported. It expected the cost of anti-AIDS drugs to come down as usage increased and generic alternatives became available.

Anglo said offering ART to its sick staff would prolong their working lives and contain future AIDS-related costs, Reuters reported. These included absenteeism, medical expenses, pension benefits and the recruitment and training costs required to replace employees who become too ill to work.