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“The only thing necessary for these diseases to the triumph is for good people and governments to do nothing.”




The HIV virus was identified in 1981. Though the media gave it much coverage, they portrayed it as a homosexual disease; governments did nothing. As a result the number of victims grew uncontrollably before the authorities recognised that gay men were in fact its victims, before they fought it seriously. It still has a homophobic stigma, and has now killed over 25 million people.

AIDS is not recognised as a labour issue, especially in the Third World. Yet it should be for two key reasons – victims suffer discrimination caused by fear and ignorance of employers and workmates, and it kills workers. ALU solidly supports the International Labour Organisation’s Code that helps workers to put the issue on the collective bargaining table.

Health care workers are a key group at risk of contracting the virus from infected patients, first because of the intimate way in which they deal with patients, and second from accidental needle pricks; nurses and workers dealing with hospital waste are most at risk.

These workers can be protected by disposing of used syringes in solid containers rather than the usual plastic bags. Syringes are broken after use to prevent recycling. Breaking them is risky demanding special procedures. Syringes that assist in safe disposal are available. But these measures cost money.
Sex work is an obvious HIV-risk occupation. Sex workers who are educated in sexual health have regular medical checks to detect sexually transmitted diseases including HIV/AIDS, and insist that clients wear condoms.


Governmental responsibility

In most of Asia Pacific, HIV/AIDS is not regarded as an occupational disease. This must be changed, particularly in the health sector. Treatment and compensation must be available for workers who contract HIV at work; doctors and occupational lawyers need to be fully aware of the implications of HIV at work.

However many national governments’ failure to educate the public about the disease is only matched by their unwillingness to spend the money necessary to defeat it.

In July 2003, noting that 42 million are now living with HIV/AIDS, former ‘terrorist’ now South African celebrity Nelson Mandela said, “These numbers are staggering ... By all accounts, we are dealing with the greatest health crisis in human history.”

Mandela accused European leaders of not responding effectively to the AIDS crisis. In contrast to his earlier condemnation of US policy on Iraq when he described President Bush as one who “cannot think properly”, he commended Bush for a recent promise to spend US$3 million a year for five years in Africa, however the praise was tempered by warning Bush that the promise must be honoured or else ….

Let us hope that Mandela does indeed monitor US spending on AIDS, as Bush’s promise of money for Africa sits uneasily alongside his policy of sexual abstinence to defeat AIDS as well as his recent choice to head the AIDS programme, Randall Tobias. AIDS activists fear that Tobias, who has no expertise regarding public health but who was recently a drug company executive. The danger they see is that instead of selecting the cheapest anti-retro viral drugs available for HIV treatment, Tobias will spend the money on expensive drugs patented by US firms.

These concerns are deepened by the implications of a conference held by the right-wing group, American Enterprise Institute, that Bush consults for advice. The conference was entitled ‘NGOs: the Growing Power of an Un-Elected Few’. Ignoring the danger of parallels between this condemnation of non-governmental organisations (NGO) and the dubious way Bush himself was elected, the conference was premised on denouncing NGO policies as hostile to US interests and ‘free-market’ principles.

NGOs and bodies like the UN, have been key rallying point in promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. The thrust of the American Enterprise Institute’s reasoning is that NGO functions should be replaced by US government departments and private companies. Thus, even if Bush’s promised ‘donation’ for Africa
is forthcoming, most of it will quickly return to US accounts.

Added to these worries, the UN Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria is very low; rich countries are donating less just when it needs more. For example
Germany’s contribution is reported to be one third down on recent annual donations.

Returning to Bush’s call for abstinence to fight HIV, it must be remembered that not only does this policy ignore the fact that much of HIV, especially outside Africa, is spread by infected blood products and drug users sharing needles, it also ignores the fact that male culture in many societies involves deceiving partners and patronising sex workers; it will take more than sound bytes to change their behaviour.


Free condoms and syringes

In modern cities condoms are easily available, but in much of the Third World where they are desperately needed to combat HIV, they are not.

First World drug users have proved that the only way to stop them sharing needles is to give out free ones; free syringes are now available under exchange schemes for intravenous drug users in the First World, a policy that must be extended to the Third World.

In 1998 the US Department of Health and Human Services reported that needle exchange projects led addicts to drug counselling and rehabilitation, reduced risky behaviour by 80 percent, and cut HIV transmission by over 30 percent.

A study of 81 cities around the world found a six percent increase in HIV infection rates in cities without needle exchange schemes, whereas in cities with schemes, rates fell by six percent.

Free donation and distribution of condoms and syringes can help to stop the spread of HIV, but without mass education about the virus and how it is transmitted, will not be successful. Therefore condoms and syringes must be donated and distributed freely in parallel with high profile HIV education programmes.

Governments that can find plenty of cash for military conquests must recognise the greater importance of investing to protect the health of the international workforce