Absa launches HIV-testing drive

21 July 2011

The government’s drive to test 15-million South Africans for HIV has received a boost from Absa bank’s new campaign, which is targeting 80% of its 35 000 employees in branches across the country.

Absa’s new HIV Counselling and Testing and Disease Management campaign – unveiled at its headquarters in downtown Johannesburg on 20 July – was applauded by Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi, who addressed the launch.

Besides promoting regular voluntary testing, the bank introduced the campaign to raise awareness about healthy living for employees who may test positive and for those who have already been diagnosed.

The bank hopes the campaign will help them deal better with issues such as long-term absenteeism by staff living with HIV and discrimination against those who disclose their status.

The campaign ties in with the virus’s “well-known” impact on companies, CEO Maria Ramos said. In reducing productivity in the workplace, HIV prevalence “has a negative impact on our country’s economic competitiveness”, she added.

HIV/Aids is to blame for 30% of absenteeism in the workplace in South Africa, while tuberculosis, which is also a leading health problem in South Africa, accounts for 3.7%, according to Motsoaledi.

Ramos said they want to reduce absenteeism, while also setting up support systems for employees. “As a responsible employer, the wellness of our people and their families is crucial,” she said.

Voluntary testing at Absa’s 900 branches is expected to start in earnest by September when staff training on HIV/Aids concludes.

Some executives and employees set the standard by getting tested at the launch. “I’ll be happy if you know that testing is not a once-off thing, you must do it every year,” Motsoaledi told Absa employees before entering the booth for his fifth test in 2011.

Motsoaledi decried the fact that while the country makes up 0.7% of the world’s population, it accounts for as much as 17% of the total global HIV prevalence.

More than 5-million South Africans are estimated to be living with HIV. “This is a serious crisis that we are facing as a country,” Motsoaledi said.

The minister’s backing of the massive testing drive falls in line with his department’s HIV counselling and testing policy. The government believes that broad prevention can be achieved if more citizens know their status.

“We have to join hands with the government to combat the disease,” Ramos said.

Knowing your status is key

Newspaper columnist Lucky Mazibuko, who’s been living with HIV for more than 20 years, spoke of the importance of knowing one’s status at the Absa launch.

The main reason he and other well-known HIV/Aids activists such as Constitutional Court judge Edwin Cameron, Treatment Action Campaign icon Zackie Achmat and Martin Vosloo have survived for so many years with the virus was because “we discovered our status as early as possible”, Mazibuko said.

“It has become common knowledge that one can live with HIV productively, successfully and meaningfully,” the columnist added.

“The virus prevails when ignorance is bliss,” but it “becomes disempowered” when people gain more knowledge about it.”

Mazibuko also tested at the Absa launch. “Despite knowing my status, I will continue to lead by example,” he said. “It’s important that people living with HIV become agents of change.”

He said his viral load was undetectable and his CD4 count was well over 500, and he largely attributes this to a healthy lifestyle.

Plea to men

At least 13-million South Africans have tested for HIV since the government launched its testing campaign in April 2010.

Sixty-five percent of those who’ve tested are women, and only 30% are men. It’s against this backdrop that Motsoaledi made an impassionate plea to South African men to get tested in numbers.

“Please stand up, your country is burning. We can’t have this battle being carried by women alone,” Motsoaledi said.

Absa’s executive Happy Ntshingila urged the bank’s male employees to lead the way in testing. “Men do not want to test. I challenge my [male] colleagues to do it today.”

Other efforts to stem the tide of the pandemic include male circumcision, which is clinically proven to decrease chances of infection. The practice is becoming more and more prevalent in South Africa.

The government also distributes at least 1-billion male condoms and about 6-million female condoms each year as part of its prevention efforts.

First published by MediaClubSouthAfrica.com – get free high-resolution photos and professional feature articles from Brand South Africa’s media service.