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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

HIV a Time Bomb in Mining Industry

LONDON -- From African countries to Russia, from Peru to China, mining companies face a problem: the workers who haul up the Earth's riches are coming down with HIV, and it is hampering operations at a time of booming demand for minerals.

"The epidemic is extremely severe, it's worse than any of us admit. There are a lot of undiagnosed cases that don't get reported," said Brian Brink, medical senior vice president at mining group Anglo American's South Africa operations.

He said Anglo, the world's fourth-largest mining group, realized it had a problem at its mines 21 years ago when four of its 18,450 South African workers tested positive for the virus.

More than two decades later, with up to one in three infected and South Africa the center of a global pandemic, the firm says its own prevention efforts failed.

"We didn't stop this epidemic. In fact if I was to look back and score ourselves, I think we get zero," Brink said.

Worldwide, the disease has killed some 30 million people, double the amount of casualties in World War I. Miners are anxious to build on lessons learned in South Africa to try to stem the tide elsewhere.

The world's fourth-biggest gold producer, Gold Fields, estimates the total cost from HIV at around $5 per ounce of gold produced in South Africa, and even with gold trading at around $650 per ounce the cost is significant.

HIV, which usually leads to AIDS, is growing fastest in Eastern Europe and Central Asia where the number of people living with HIV has grown 20-fold in less than a decade, according to the United Nations. In Russia, the infection rate has more than doubled in two years to 1.2 million in 2005, and in the country's fifth-largest gold mining area, Irkutsk, the rate is more than three times the Russian average, United Nations Development Program data showed. In India, there are many patches where the population's infection rate is above 1 percent.

"In the early 1990s that [1 percent] is where we were, and then it is very difficult to stop," Brink said.

The HIV infection rate among South African miners is now nearly double that of the general working population.

In China, the UN estimated 650,000 people were infected in 2005, up by 23 percent in two years. If that spread continues, some 1.9 million people will be infected in China by 2015. "They [other countries] must not fall into the same trap as South Africa," said Lennox Mekuto, Health and Safety Officer for the National Union of Mineworkers in South Africa.

Sex Workers

Miners -- many migrant workers -- risk their lives to make money daily, so unprotected sex seems a minor hazard.

Remote mine sites attract sex workers. In the mining province Yunnan in China, sex workers from Myanmar and Vietnam are a high-risk group likely to spread the disease as illegal migrants fear the threat of deportation if they contact public health services. "This is the nature of our business, it attracts sex workers, whether we like it or not we cannot wish it away," said Stella Ntimbane, group HIV/AIDS coordinator for Gold Fields in South Africa.

Clients of sex workers are a major bridge of HIV transmission to the general population. In 2005, the UN's labor organization estimated that 1.4 million sex workers were forced labor, without access to treatment.

Russia, China, India and the broader continent of Africa face a huge urban-rural divide, limiting rural access to HIV clinics. In often inhospitable mining areas, workers and their communities depend on services provided by mining firms.

Poverty adds to the risk of infection and the virus creates a vicious circle, with an estimated cost of 0.5 to 2 percent of the gross domestic product growth in the worst-hit countries.

Slow Governments

In India, an influx of multinational corporate investment gives business a great opportunity to play a significant role in the fight to halt the epidemic, said Neeraj Mistry of the Global Business Coalition in New York, which consists of 200 companies dedicated to fighting AIDS.

Governments must also act, he said: "In Russia and Eastern Europe we are seeing that the governments are a bit slow."

In Russia and neighboring countries, HIV is concentrated within the prison population, sex workers and intravenous drug users.

"When I was working in Ukraine, it was well known that on pay day, miners would spend a lot on drugs and alcohol and HIV was spreading quite rapidly," Joseph Amon, Human Rights Watch's director for HIV/AIDS said.

Win a Truck

After initial confusion and political obfuscation, South Africa has brought all stakeholders together and the government, civil society and business have set up a five-year plan to tackle HIV.

Firms are enticing miners to take HIV/AIDS tests by offering prizes, sending mobile treatment units to the bush where sex workers operate and blanketing the region with condoms.

For instance, Gold Fields gives each miner who takes an HIV/AIDS test a lottery ticket, offering monthly prizes of cell phones, televisions and cash, plus a final sweepstakes where one worker wins a new pickup truck.

If more governments addressed the pandemic, it would secure the sustainability of HIV programs, especially when a mine closes and the firm leaves, South African executives said.

BHP Billiton, the world's largest mining company, said for every dollar it invests in HIV training, education and medical programs, the return is fourfold in terms of benefits such as retraining, absenteeism and productivity.

"There is an overwhelming business case," said BHP Billiton's regional health adviser for Southern Africa, Andre van der Bergh.

"When we started our HIV program we didn't wait for any government to say yes or no. If there is a risk for an organization we take appropriate action."