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Together, HIV intervention at the workplace

An employee of an IT firm was recently diagnosed with HIV. “What do we do with him'” is the question with which the Ranchi-based company, having never encountered such a situation before, called up a Calcutta NGO.

This scenario, statistics say, will recur in a cross-section of companies. Statistics — and precedence — also say that HIV will soon make its presence felt in India Inc. To pre-empt the economic damage, as seen in the worst-affected countries, NGOs and corporates are waking up to the need for rapid, and combined, action.

Bhoruka, a Calcutta-based NGO, has been working with some corporates sporadically in the past. Now, it is starting a campaign to spread the word among a broader range of companies. “We want to work with people from all strata in these companies, from the top management to the grassroots,” explains Rakesh Agarwal of Bhoruka. “This is a disease with an economic impact. What happens if there is a group of HIV-positive people in a company'”

Even if the management operates on a policy of fair play, employees may end up stigmatising and ostracising positives, if they do not have the correct information, warns Agarwal. “To prevent losses in terms of manpower, treatment costs, re-training and high turnover rates, it is important to ensure awareness. One diagnosed with the virus may still have many productive years ahead.”

According to Bhoruka, Calcutta-based companies like Webel, IFB, Eveready and Tata Tea have been approached and the initial response has been positive. The programmes will be customised to suit company needs. At ONGC, Bhoruka stepped in to help with public and intra-company campaign.

“Every corporate has a responsibility, towards its own employees and to society as a whole. Our employees responded positively to the sessions, which saw around 60 to 70 per cent attendance,” says P.K. Dasgupta, deputy chief medical officer, ONGC.

The core activity of the NGO, which has been working with HIV-positive patients since the early 90s, is its blood bank. In 1992, HIV incidence was just .009 per cent. In 2001, it shot up to .24 per cent. In just another year, it had touched .34. “Voluntary blood-donors are a socially conscious group, usually educated and productive. So, this is an alarming jump,” notes Agarwal.

Bhoruka’s workplace intervention campaign has, thus, far stressed on education of truckers — a high-risk group. They have worked in the past with companies like ONGC and HPCL. Going to the workplace gives access to a worker for, usually, around five years, “long enough to create a sustained behaviour change”. This is in conjunction with initiatives with students. Bhoruka has been recently given responsibility for the schools health programme for North 24-Parganas.

The model has also been used at West Bank Hospital, where everyone, right down to ward attendants, has gone through sensitisation workshops. “We have, in the past, seen hospital workers write ‘HIV’ on the foreheads of the positive patients,” recalls Agarwal. “Though doctors may be sensitised, if the receptionist refuses to handle a patient at the outset, proper treatment will never be possible.” The same principle applies to companies.

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