HIV is crippling the economy

Geoff Jacobs, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce and Industry

The cost of treating all the 7.9 million people living with HIV in South Africa has become a problem that could soon be a bigger financial burden than the Eskom disaster.

It costs R3 899 to treat each patient for a year and if all are treated the total bill would be R30.8 billion. Eskom’s total earnings before tax, interest, depreciation and amortisation amount to R32 billion a year. In addition, there are
4 500 new infections every week and that would increase treatment costs by R896.8 million a year.

The sheer scale of the HIV problem and the associated TB infections dwarf the financial problems of both SAA and the SABC. This means the ship of state that is South Africa has two big holes in its hull below the waterline.

Eskom is the bigger problem because
of its massive debt
(R450 billion and rising) and because so much of our industry depends on a reliable and affordable electricity supply.

We have already seen how it has become too dangerous and too expensive to work our deep gold mines and that has already cost the country many thousands of jobs and much needed revenue from exports. Aids is a drain on the economy, but it does not have the knock-on effects of the electricity problem. The big battle is to stop the new infections.

Progress has already been made in reducing the cost of treatment which has come down from R4 556 per patient per year to R3 899.

New drugs are cheaper and more effective but distribution, laboratory and staff costs will continue to increase.

The big problem, however, is that more than one third of people who are HIV positive are not receiving treatment and are therefore continuing to spread the disease.

Business has an important role to play in limiting new infections as it is well placed to communicate with staff at wellness days and on other occasions.

One in five people are HIV positive so it is likely that every company employs infected people and many of them are not being treated.

The first step is to persuade staff to be tested and to encourage male circumcision which significantly reduces new infections. Cape Town is one of the worst affected areas and less that 52% of people in Cape Town living with HIV are on antiretroviral treatment and only 48% are virally suppressed while just 17% of men are circumcised.

These figures tell us that we have a big and important job to do in Cape Town, especially as we also have a high TB rate.

We appeal to all businesses to get education programmes going and to encourage staff to get tested.