Tanzanian employers count HIV/AIDS toll

Dar es Salaam- Tanzania (PANA) -- As the people's attention gets shorter, the employers face the difficult challenge of trying to get their employees think longer-term about the escalating HIV/AIDS pandemic.
It is not easy and the hard lessons are pouring in.
For example, it is no longer a secret that teachers are dying at a faster rate than the number graduating from training colleges due to the epidemic.
State-owned Tanzania Electric Supply Company has lost at least 500 employees to the same disease within ten years since 1990.
As the only parastatal to break the silence over the disease, the utility reports that the number of dead represented almost nine percent of its total workforce during the period.
But the situation is not any different within other paratatals as statistics from the umbrella Parastatal Pensions Fund show.
Up to 90 percent of all deaths within the government- controlled companies are associated with the dreaded disease.
Data from the private sector is not less sobering.
A recent anonymous HIV survey conducted by the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) and other organisations in various companies in Tanzania demonstrated viral prevalence of between five and 25 percent among employees at all levels of the companies.
"The situation is very grave," one of the medical researchers, Justine Mbonde, observes.
Costs to a company or organisation in relation to the HIV/AIDS can be astronomical, be it in terms of declining productivity or just absenteeism, he points out.
Companies are spending heavily on medical care, lost production and funeral costs for experts and employees who have been affected by the incurable disease.
Besides, they have to pay out life insurance premiums whenever applicable, and pension fund commitments as a result of early retirement or death of victims.
But the way the entire issue is handled could be more precarious than its underlying implications given the many misconceptions surrounding the disease in the country.
AMREF says in a baseline study conducted in 1999 among 26 private sector companies in Dar es Salaam and Zanzibar that despite high levels of general awareness about the disease, some workers still had serious misconceptions about its spread.
During the study, 38.
9 percent or 443 of 1,140 respondents believed that sharing toilets could facilitate the spread of AIDS while 9.
7 percent or 113 respondents out of 1,161 believed that sharing workplace equipment could spread the pandemic.
Another 7.
2 percent or 85 out of 1,178 respondents believed that shaking hands could spread HIV.
"To weed out such misconceptions and myths the workers need to be educated on the basic facts on HIV/AIDS.
Employers need to put in place HIV/AIDS education programmes to meet this objective," Mbonde notes in a policy paper.
Unfortunately, behaviours such as having multiple sexual partners, unprotected sex, use of drugs or alcohol that exacerbate the spread of HIV are still prevalent within the working class.
The study found that 1.
3 percent or 11 out of 825 respondents had had intercourse with more than five different sexual partners within the same week while 7.
8 percent or 64 out of 825 of them had between two and five different sexual partners within a similar period.
Condom use was found to be low, implying that workers may be practising unprotected sex.
Barely 40 percent or 560 out of 1,129 respondents reported to have ever used the device but could not confirm consistently using it.
Mbonde says: "Employers must make sure that workers are provided with information on HIV prevention and risk reduction in order to maintain a healthy workforce.
" Having realised the impact of the disease on businesses, organisations and companies, Tanzanian employers are now extending their horizons to look at the risks posed by the continuing deluge with the hopes of reversing the unfolding degradation.
"It therefore makes sense to invest in prevention, care and support programmes to stem declining business productivity and profitability," Mbonde says.
Considerations, he says, must be systematically factored into eliminating any discrimination that may arise from any employee's perceived or real HIV status.

22 Abril 2001 11:24:00

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