AID-DEVELOPMENT: South African truck drivers living dangerously - update

subscriber | 15 January, 2006

JOHANNESBURG. A HIV/AIDS programme geared towards South Africa’s truck drivers during the next three years is gaining momentum - with increased awareness both among the target group and the broader public through quite extensive media coverage - including coverage in the prestigious, investigative show Special Assignment on SABC, the public broadcaster in South Africa.
The programme is supported by Swedish aid agency SIDA, through a 6,4 million kronor grant to set up evening health clinics along major trucking routes, where the truck drivers “girlfriends”, the sex workers, also are welcome.
South Africa’s truck drivers are hit by hiv-aids at an astounding rate. A study in the KwaZulu-Natall-province suggest that 40 % of the country’s truck drivers could be HIV-positive.
“It is an excellent idea to try and reach truck drivers when they are on the road. They will not go for treatment at there own companies, they would be too afraid to do so. I think that the companies must do more. They are pushing the drivers too much by letting them drive for months without any leave”, said Molefo Modise, a South African truck driver who is on treatment.
In 1994 20 percent, or 70 000, drivers left their jobs for various reasons, belived to be mainly due to hiv-aids, out of a total workforce of 350 000.
The transport industry, including Swedish truck manufacturers Scania and Volvo, is struggling to come to grips with the underlying factors.
Truck drivers are extremely hesitant to test themselves, in particular at the company premises.
Besides the emotional trauma they have to go through, they are afraid that the employer will take them off driving duty – leading to a loss of income - and they are afraid they have some explanation to do to their wives if they turn out to be HIV-positive.
Most importantly, if they are HIV-positive they are facing a situation when they are diagnosed with the dreaded disease but most of them do not belong to any medical aid scheme and will therefore have difficulty to get access to anti-retroviral.
The State health sector has only recently started to roll out a treatment scheme, forced upon it by the country’s Supreme Court. But only critically ill people are initially getting access to State subsidised aids-medication.
The SIDA supported project initially aims to try and gain the confidence from the truck drivers while they are on the road – away from the prying eyes of employers and wives.
The counterpart, the National Bargaining Council of the Road Freight Industry, consists of representatives of both employers and trade unions.
It is almost impossible for the individual trucking companies, as for any company, to gain the trust of their employees in this matter. It is a status quo situation; if an employee is HIV-positive he will sooner or later be taken off his job due to safety regulations.
The project does not include disbursement of anti-retroviral as it is, according to SIDAs Rina Schoeman, impossible to monitor bypassing truck drivers from the road side clinics that are set up.
She consedes that what the programme really needs is a role model, a HIV-positive truck driver who is prepared to champion the cause on a public stage.

Editorial Comment: This is the first time the trucking industry comes together in an attempt to break the aggravating situation in the sector. It is also the first attempt by SIDA to intervene in a particular industry in the fight against AIDS in South Africa. (DANIDA, NORAD, FINNIDA?)
Any new way to encourage truck drivers, blamed for having played a major role in the spread HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa and to change their high-risk sexual habits – the sex workers, another vulnerable group are also welcome to the clinics for free consultations – is highly welcome.
How to get to the next phase, when truck drivers actually are taking their lives in their own hands, is still unclear.
“Champions”, individual truck drivers that dare to step forward, are badly needed.
Scandinavian companies, as all others, need to be more pro-active and innovative in finding ways to gain the trust of their, otherwise dying, employees.

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