JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — You may think that the title says it all, “The Global Business Coalition Conference on TB, HIV/TB Co-infection and Global Fund Partnership,” but there’s more. Tuesday’s first session, “Lesson’s From the Mining Industry: Turning the Tide on TB/HIV” went deeper into the role of the mining industry in South Africa and the benefits of fighting tuberculosis to all companies and industries.
“How many investments have a ten-fold return?” is says in bold letters on the inside of the conference program. “Fighting tuberculosis is one of them,” it says. “Heavily affected countries get a ten-fold return or more — through increased economic productivity — on what they invest in tackling tuberculosis. Tuberculosis is slowing economic development in the countries with the most potential for rapid market growth. It makes good business sense to be part of the solution.”
Gavin Churchyard, CEO of the Aurum Institute took the audience back nearly a hundred years to the 1912 commission on TB in mines. He highlighted the increased risk factors — HIV and silicosis (a form of occupational lung disease caused by inhalation of crystalline silica dust, and marked by inflammation and scarring in the lungs), which substantially increase the risk of TB and are very much present in those who work in the mines. Miners are more susceptible to TB because of their age (25-33), gender (male) and behavior (smoking and exposure to silica dust in the mines), according to Thuthula Balfour-Kaipa, health advisor to the Chamber of Mines of South Africa.
Natalie Ridgard, migration health project officer at the International Organization for Migration, went a step further indicating that miners are a high-risk population due to structural, environmental and individual reasons. Miners are predominantly migratory males putting them at increased risk of unprotected sex with concurrent partners. The physical day-to-day dangers of their work leads many miners to have less concern for diseases they cannot see and ultimately these decisions they make or their lack of knowledge have lasting affects on their family members and the communities they are a part of.
But not all is lost, companies like AngloAmerican and AngloGold Ashanti are taking steps to implement TB control programs that are in line with national and international control regulations, isolate infectious employees and ensure their enrollment and successful completion of Directly Observed Therapy Short Course (DOTS).
The members of the mining industry represented on the panel and in the audience all recognized the importance of good TB control and good HIV/AIDS programs, and also acknowledged the importance of new technologies to reduce the amount of silica that miners are exposed to. That being said, protective filtration masks are supposed to be worn by miners in the mines, but oftentimes they are not worn.
The same can be said for voluntary counseling and testing programs that many companies provide — what if your employees don’t want to know their status or have safe sex? Some may say this is out of the employers’ hands, but not Dr. Brian Brink chief medical officer at AngloAmerican who has shown a special interest in the funding, delivery and management of health care services, particularly HIV and TB, in Southern Africa and internationally. Dr. Brink passionately expressed his sentiments that “TB death is unacceptable; a death by TB is a failure.” Even with the high incidence of TB in South Africa, especially in the mining industry, he sees no reason why the industry cannot have a positive impact to change cultural, social and business norms so that no death due to TB is seen as an acceptable loss. Dr. Brink currently leads the Private sector Delegation on the Board of the Global Fund to fight AIDS, TB and Malaria.
If it wasn’t evident before today, let it be known that the mining industry’s commitment to stemming the TB and HIV epidemics is serious.