“Out of the Valley of Death”

It’s the funerals that haven’t happened that tell the story. Hundreds of them were not held in 2003 because of a decision made in a corporate boardroom in Johannesburg. Back in August 2002, Anglo American, the world’s largest mining operation and the largest company in South Africa, decided to offer all of its frontline mining employees the most advanced AIDS treatment: antiretroviral therapy (ART), the so-called triple-drug cocktail that is the standard in the developed world.

Fast Company wrote about Anglo’s journey to that decision last June, and about Dr. Brian Brink, Anglo’s senior medical officer, who drove Anglo to offer treatment (“One Man’s Drive, One Company’s Courage“). Anglo is huge–130,000 employees in South Africa–and HIV and AIDS are a significant problem for the company. Brink estimates that 25% to 30% of Anglo’s employees are HIV-positive–more than 30,000 people.

Since the drug regimen became available, 1,048 employees have enrolled in treatment. “Some 95% [of them] are back at work,” says Brink. “Without the medicine, at least one-third of those people would be dead. The effect is profound.” The major disappointment is that not more of the 3,000 to 6,000 currently eligible employees have signed up, partly because many don’t realize they qualify well before they get seriously ill. “It has gone very well,” says Brink, “but it’s not enough.”

Yet the company can take some credit for the decision last fall by the South African government to offer the drug cocktail to the country’s citizens–with technical help from Anglo. Brink says that that decision is profound as well: “We’ve moved out of the valley of death now.”CF