We’re doing well but the battle goes on

By DR. TSHEPO SEDIBE*

We in De Beers Group are passionate about the health and wellbeing of our employees and of the communities they come from. So we are determined to keep up the fight against HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis (TB) among our people in southern Africa.

Our view is that the health of our workforce and their communities is interwoven. By helping one, we help the other.

World AIDS Day, we come together to show our support for people living with the illness, commemorate those who have lost their lives from it and rededicate ourselves to the battle against HIV/AIDS.

As background, AIDS stands for ‘acquired immune deficiency syndrome’, which happens because of the damage to the immune system caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). It was first recognised in 1981 and the term AIDS emerged in 1982.

Since then, the world has made great progress. One might even be forgiven for thinking that the battle is just about won. Sadly not. There are still major challenges that demand that we sustain the fight towards our goals of zero new cases of HIV, zero stigma, and zero deaths related to HIV.

According to the United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), more than two million people are newly infected with HIV annually, two thirds of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa. De Beers Group has reported 58 new cases of HIV in 2018, and regrettably five of our people lost their lives from HIV-related conditions.

Only a combination of behavioural and biomedical programmes and fresh approaches to eliminating structural barriers will stop new HIV infections. We must continue to work together to end the HIV epidemic.

There has been remarkable success, particularly over the past two decades, in reducing HIV associated mortality and transmission, as well as the stigma attached to it, and in improving the quality of life of people living with HIV.

As treatment becomes more effective, more of our people are continuing to contribute positively to their communities and to the company. Everyone benefits, particularly the infected and the affected.

De Beers Group is committed to achieving the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets and contributing to ending the AIDS epidemic by 2030, and to backing the World Health Organization End TB Strategy.

We have more than 11,000 employees in southern Africa. By 2019, we expect to be one of the region’s first organisations in which 90 per cent of our people will know their HIV status, 90 per cent of employees diagnosed with an HIV infection will receive sustained anti-retroviral therapy, and 90 per cent of employees receiving that therapy will have viral suppression.

In 2017, we launched a campaign in the company called ‘know your status’, actively supported by top executives, with the aim of removing the stigma attached to being tested for HIV. I am proud of the progress we have made. In our first year of participation in the 90-90-90 programme in 2015, 26 per cent knew their status. In 2018, it is well past 80 per cent.

We in De Beers Group have shifted our focus towards prevention. A total of 91 per cent of our people living with HIV have suppressed the virus, thus reducing the risk of transmission. We are, of course, aiming for 100 per cent.

Globally, children aged up to 14 years accounted for 180,000 new HIV infections in 2017. Our HIV Disease Management Programme, launched in 2001, has reached 10 years of HIV positive mothers giving birth to HIV negative babies, a vital contribution towards protecting the future.

In South Africa, that translated into delivering 456 pregnancies with HIV negative results. This is in keeping with our values of ‘Shaping the future, and show we care’.

With equal determination in the fight against HIV/AIDS, we are striding forward in reducing TB. We offer all HIV positive employees prophylactic treatment to protect them against TB. The incidence of it in our operations in Botswana, Namibia and South Africa is lower than in the general mining industry, and in our host countries.

We have had no TB deaths since 2012 and we have cut the TB incidence to below 100 per 100,000 people in a region that generally reports 500-800 cases per 100,000 people. I see this as a commendable achievement, which demonstrates that our efforts count.

Today, we continue our call to our people and to their families, and to all, to get tested for HIV at least once a year. We need to establish a culture where people always know their HIV status.

De Beers Group is in the thick of the battle against HIV/AIDS, but it is a global problem, not just a southern African problem. Today, let us all rededicate ourselves to helping the world beat this disease.

*By Dr. Tshepo Sedibe, De Beers Group Senior Occupational Health Manager, reports on the progress being made in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

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