Thirty companies join the fight against the global epidemic
CAIRO: More than 30 of Egypt’s biggest private sector companies have recently joined the fight against AIDS in Egypt, making this global epidemic a private sector business.
Realizing the negative impact AIDS will have on their businesses if not addressed, a number of international and local companies – including Coca-Cola, Shell, the American Chamber of Commerce, Bristol Myers Squibb, Trane, Cadbury and Egyptian Napgas and Europharma – pledged their support to the global partnership against HIV and AIDS during a one-day workshop held this May by the Ministry of Health and Population (MOHP) in coordination with UNAIDS, UNICEF, who launched this private sector initiative three years ago; the International Labor Organization and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime with Care Egypt.
“Tackling AIDS will have a very relevant impact on the private sector’s businesses, and not just from a human rights perspective, says Dr. Wessam El Beih, HIV/AIDS officer, UNICEF Egypt. “For example, let’s say a company requires mandatory testing every year. Typically, an employee who tests positively to AIDS is fired. That means a waste of resources and skills that the company has invested in, and it takes away from the company’s resources in terms of allocating, hiring and training someone else, especially if the person fired was in a critical position.
According to El Beih, corporations are now beginning to realize that the risks incurred from the disease, if left unaddressed, turn into an expensive problem.
“HIV/AIDS is our business, says Mushira El Baradai, the head of the Human Resource Committee at the American Chamber of Commerce, representing the Egyptian Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS (EBC). We can lose the human skills we need to expand; we can lose productivity and suffer lower staff morale. In all these ways, our businesses can be directly hit.
Representatives of Coca-Cola and Shell, companies that have already adopted HIV/AIDS policies in the workplace, outlined the initiatives they have undertaken to increase HIV awareness among their staff, to guarantee the rights of workers living with HIV and to reduce the stigma and discrimination they are exposed to.
“We found out that the best approach to reach out to our staff is through education, says Ghada Abdel Hamid, Coca-Cola communications manager for North and West Africa.
A number of small but important steps were proposed for companies, such as organizing informational workshops for staff, displaying flyers and posters with key messages on HIV and extending corporate policies that combat discrimination and promote equal opportunities.
While Egypt has a low prevalence rate of HIV in the general population, at 0.01 percent, according to El Beih, from 1990 until the present day, the amount of AIDS/HIV cases has increased. Furthermore, because many people do not test, either out of fear of being found out or in the general belief that this disease cannot affect them, there are many more people infected with AIDS than official figures show.
“For every one case, there are five others not admitted, says El Beih. “Most people think they are not vulnerable to the disease that it cannot happen to them. We want people to benefit before this disease spreads and becomes a widespread epidemic like it has in countries that share our culture and values, such as Iran, Sudan and Indonesia.
According to El Beih, more than 65 percent of AIDS cases have been contracted from sex, both heterosexual and homosexual intercourse. However, El Beih is quick to point out that this means of contraction is also applicable to other diseases – such as hepatitis, which is prevalent in Egypt.
The private sector, just like the media, can help change the way people stereotype this disease as one derived from “sin, thus aiding in changing the mindset of Egyptians and Arabs alike.
“As businessmen and women, you have the ability to find the pragmatic solutions needed to tackle an issue like HIV/AIDS, says Dr. Erma Manoncourt, chair of the Expanded Theme Group on HIV/AIDS and UNICEF Egypt representative.
“The truth is, [the way that people contract AIDS through intercourse], is part of our everyday life … whether we admit it or not, says El Beih. “But that’s not the only way to get it. A mother can give it to her child and a husband can give it to his wife. We have to see past this stereotype for what AIDS really is a disease, an illness, like any other.
According to Dr. Ehab Salah, who leads the National AIDS Program at the Ministry of Health and Population, while Egypt has a low prevalence rate, the high risk factors facing Egypt include illiteracy, widespread ignorance about the disease and a population in which young people make up over 30 percent. In order to properly address AIDS, measures must be taken to tackle the high risk factors Egypt faces, starting primarily with awareness.
“Everybody has a role in this epidemic. If you just educate one person, talk to one person about what you have learned about AIDS today, then you have already helped stop the disease from spreading, says El Beih.
“You have two options, either be part of the problem, or be part of the solution, says Mohamed El Kallah coordinator of the Global Compact in Egypt.