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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

5 Ways to Protect the Work Force From HIV

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Compared with much of the world, Russia was late to learn about AIDS. In the 1990s, as the disease surged across sub-Saharan Africa, the number of HIV cases in Russia was relatively small. Although the epidemic had already given the first signals of danger, very few people paid much attention to the need for far-reaching prevention programs. Business leaders were concerned with their own survival in the country's emerging market, and the government was struggling to maintain an infirm health care system that it inherited from the Soviet Union.

Since that time, the rate of new HIV infections has been increasing much faster than Russian experts had anticipated at the beginning of the epidemic. Russia is now home to the largest HIV epidemic in Europe -- more than 400,000 Russians are living with the virus, according to data from the Health and Social Development Ministry. The United Nations estimates are more pessimistic: More than 1 million Russians are infected with HIV. This difference suggests that most Russians living with HIV are unaware of it.

As HIV in Russia continues to spread at rates that are among the highest in the world, the epidemic has the potential to become a significant threat to the national economy, the country's demographic stability, security and social life. A number of social factors are contributing to the spread of this epidemic: widespread drug use, an unwillingness to discuss sexual behavior and, of course, a deep-rooted misconception that HIV and AIDS affect only high risk groups such as sex workers and drug users but not "decent people." The most depressing issue, however, is the general lack of information about the epidemic, which results in ungrounded fears, unprotected sex and discrimination toward people living with the disease.

When it comes to the business community, not many Russian business leaders realize the risks of the virus on their employees. Only a few of them are ready to act.

According to the World Health Organization's forecast, the country's HIV infection rate is likely to continue to increase, and what is most disturbing is that this increase will be greatest among the young working population. In just a few years, this will undoubtedly have a tangible, negative effect on the national economy: increasing health care costs, decreasing productivity and inhibiting gross national product growth. On the company level, high rates of infection will lead to increased work absenteeism and higher staff turnover. This will mean that companies will have to invest more on recruitment and training. Growing costs and declining profits will hurt companies' competitiveness.

Some of the most shocking examples of HIV's destruction can be seen from the corporate experience in African nations. For example, in Zambia and Botswana, 20 percent to 25 percent of the adult population has been infected with HIV. In these countries, the absenteeism rate is so high that some companies have to hire two employees for each position. While one employee is on sick leave because of AIDS-related maladies, the other employee works.

A workplace prevention program is one of the best recipes that the international business community can share with Russian managers. Timely investments in education, prevention and health projects are an essential part of ensuring long-term financial profit. According to a Boston University research study in six African companies, investments in prevention and treatment saved on average 40 percent on potential AIDS-related losses. DaimlerChrysler specialists in South Africa have calculated that preventing one case of HIV infection saves three to four times the value of the average annual wages. Contrary to some perceptions, expenses related to corporate HIV prevention programs have more to do with safeguarding companies' economic interest than with public relations or charity.

To guarantee sustainable results, workplace education programs should be comprehensive and must consist of five key actions:

• Conduct a situation analysis and needs assessment that enables a company to create an appropriate, tailor-made program.

• Adopt a public policy that clearly states a company's position of nondiscrimination toward HIV-positive employees.

• Organize HIV-prevention training programs for employees. Workers tend to respect information that comes from their employer, making it one of the most effective ways to achieve tangible change of behavior. Another benefit of informational HIV training is that it does not require a great deal of expenses -- only a classroom, two to three hours of time and a trainer's fee (in-staff trainers can be prepared to minimize costs). HIV-prevention training has a positive impact on staff morale as they develop a spirit of concern and nondiscrimination.

• Cooperate with local medical institutions to improve the quality of their services and care -- for example, supporting a clinic by buying new medical equipment. This is a good way to build public-private partnerships that have a direct benefit for employees and their families. The company benefits by developing a reputation for being socially responsible and also by protecting its employees' health, and the state is able to improve its medical infrastructure.

• Evaluate and monitor the education and prevention programs. This helps companies to constantly improve their programs and to gain insight as to their overall effectiveness.

In the fight to protect Russia's work force, it is crucial that all sectors -- government, business and nongovernmental organizations -- contribute their expertise. Government has a vital role to play to engage business in the fight against the virus and to encourage workplace programs. Their importance cannot be overstated.

The Russian business community has the power to adopt HIV prevention as part of its social responsibility standards. NGOs are a good resource for disseminating knowledge and sharing best practices; their experts can serve as independent consultants for government officials and business executives to build HIV/AIDS programs that are tailored to Russia's needs. All these sectors can -- and must -- not only take steps to fight this epidemic on their own, but also come together in a new public-private partnership to promote best practices in HIV education, prevention, care and treatment.

Russia may have been late to learn about AIDS, but there are still excellent opportunities to draw on the lessons learned from international experience. Let's act now to build a powerful cross-sector coalition of government, business and NGOs so we can protect our work force and our children from this disease. It's not too late to change the course of HIV in Russia.

Daniel Kashnitsky works for the Business and Labor Program of Transatlantic Partners Against AIDS/Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (TPAA/GBC).