Dr Sophia Kisting, director, ILO Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work, is an occupational medical specialist who now devotes all her energy to fighting the epidemic.
The 55-year-old South African was listed as one of the 10 most influential women in the world in occupational health by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2003. Dr Kisting has been actively involved in worker health and safety programmes, as well as TB and HIV/AIDS management in African countries.
On her first official visit to India recently, Dr Kisting took some time off to speak to Mint. Dr Kisting’s counterpart in India, S. Mohd. Afsar, ILO’s HIV/AIDS specialist for South Asia, joined in. Afsar set up ILO’s HIV/AIDS project in India in 2001. Edited excerpts:
In some parts of Africa, productivity has taken a hit because of the HIV/AIDS situation. What are the chances that could happen in India?
Kisting: We see a golden opportunity because we can actually prevent that from happening here. Countries need to have a sense of urgency for prevention of the epidemic.
To what extent can HIV/AIDS impact productivity?
Kisting: If you see the studies, it (HIV/AIDS impact) doesn’t reflect dramatically on the overall GDP. The impact is on the individual and the family and the community. The methodology we are using to see how it affects economic performance and GDP is not as sensitive as it can be. It’s impossible to say that it has no effect.
Are more companies in India taking up HIV/AIDS policies?
Afsar: There are some good efforts, but the exact number of companies that have a policy is few. Often, we take HIV positive people with us when we meet companies. That has helped change the thinking.
They see that it is happening to Indian people, and that it is not a problem limited to South Africa or other countries. They also realize that people living with this infection remain healthy for a long time and can work. It’s a myth to think that HIV positive people are all thin, weak and on their deathbeds.
What’s the most common reply you hear when you approach Indian firms about putting an HIV/AIDS programme in place?
Afsar: The immediate thing is, ‘Do we really need it here? People who are working for us are educated.’ They think it’s not in our culture. We do a basic knowledge survey to test what people know about the disease. They are amazed that the level of ignorance in their own workforce is as high as they thought it could be for illiterate workers.
Is ignorance of HIV/AIDS a problem at certain levels of the workforce?
Kisting: The middle management is often as ignorant as the guys on the floor. And, they are the ones who often take decisions on this.
You have commitment by the CEO and the top. But, that line management and middle management is often not trained.
For us, that is critically important because that is where workers often lose their jobs. On a day-to-day basis, they don’t interact with the CEO.