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Desmond Tutu once said: “How does one go about eating an elephant? You eat it one bite at a time.” When it comes to getting a handle on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and the related acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic in South Africa, it feels like we’ve been chewing on the same bit of elephant for an awfully long time.

“South Africa has earned the unenviable distinction of having the biggest HIV/AIDS epidemic in the world, with an estimated 7.7 million people or more than 20 percent of the population aged between 15 and 49 currently living with HIV/AIDS,” says Neale Hill, MD of Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa. “We cannot and will not rest until we have won the war against this insidious disease.”

Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa (FMCSA) was quick to move onto the frontlines when the battle began. In the early 2000s, in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic which had devastated the local Mamelodi community, former FMCSA President Lewis Booth, and former CFO (and later President) Dave Schoch, had the vision to create and launch the Ford Care Centre on the grounds of the global automaker’s vehicle assembly plant in Silverton. Ford has supported HIV/AIDS awareness, education, testing, and counselling ever since.

Ford cares for the community

Future Families, which is a non-profit organisation rendering quality services to orphans and vulnerable children, as well as people infected with or affected by HIV/AIDS, has an office at the Ford Care Centre, which caters to the Mamelodi community.

The main objective of Future Families is to keep children in families. This is sometimes a new type of family – a granny-headed family, a youth-headed family, or even a child-headed family. Social workers from Future Families visit the Mamelodi community to create support structures for these families, and empower them to raise well-balanced children who will become productive members of society.

In 2015, the Ford Care Centre was expanded to become the Ford Resource and Engagement Centre, adding education, training, and entrepreneurship programmes to its community offerings.

Ford cares for its employees, and members of its supplier network

Life Employee Health Solutions (EHS), delivered by Careways and Life Occupational Health, provides Ford with a comprehensive Employee Wellness programme that supports the physical, emotional and financial wellbeing of all its staff.

“Buildings and machinery don’t make companies, people do,” says Sr Annelie Scholtz from Life EHS who, since 2009, has been running on-site HIV/AIDS counselling and testing services at the Silverton Assembly Plant. “It makes good business sense to look after your people, because when your people are healthy, your company is healthy!”

Ford currently employs around 4 400 people at the Silverton facility in Pretoria and the Struandale Engine Plant in Port Elizabeth. It’s a massive operation, requiring a great deal of investment by the automaker in its human capital – its most valuable assets – to run efficiently and effectively.

“All of Ford’s HIV/AIDS awareness, education, testing, and counselling services are available not only to direct employees, but also members of the company’s supplier network,” continues Scholtz. “The slogan for Ford’s internal HIV/AIDS awareness campaign is PASOP. It stands for: Prevent infection. Avoid infection. Stop risky behaviour. Overcome the fear. Protect yourself.”

“It’s normal to worry about testing for HIV and what your result will be,” she continues. “But testing is the only way to know for sure if you have the virus. And you must remember, testing is not only for those who have never tested before. Or for those who were HIV-negative the last time they tested but have since been potentially exposed to HIV through, for example, having unprotected sex with someone who may be HIV-positive. Ongoing testing is also crucial for those who know their HIV-positive status and are on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment, because they need to monitor their viral loads.”

‘Viral load’ refers to the amount of virus in your body. It is measured by a blood test which also shows how well the ARV treatment is working at protecting your immune system from other potential illnesses.

“We may not have a cure for HIV just yet,” Scholtz says. “But ARV treatment has come a long way over the years, and around 90 percent of people will now be able to achieve ‘undetectable’ or ‘suppressed’ viral loads by adhering to their ARV treatment over a period of six months. At this point, when your viral load is undetectable, then there is zero risk of you transmitting HIV.”

“Simply being on ARV treatment, however, doesn’t automatically mean that you’re undetectable,” she warns. “And it usually takes the body a while to adjust to new medication.” Undetectable also isn’t a constant state, as viral loads fluctuate. This is why it is crucial to continue taking your medication – even if you look and feel well – and why you need to be vigilant about ongoing viral load monitoring. For those on ARV treatment, it is recommended to visit a healthcare practitioner for a blood test every two to four months.

“While 90 percent of people in South Africa living with HIV are now aware of their status, we are still sadly a long way off from meeting all three of the UN’s 95-95-95 targets,” she continues.

The targets she is referring to are a set of global goals established by the United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS. By 2020, the goal is that: 95 percent of people living with HIV will know their status; 95 percent of those who know their HIV-positive status will be accessing treatment; and 95 percent of people on treatment will have suppressed viral loads.

“Unfortunately, only 62 percent of people in South Africa living with HIV are accessing treatment, despite us having the largest antiretroviral treatment programme in the world, and only 54 percent of people on treatment are virally suppressed,” she concludes. “We may have won some battles, but we are still far from winning this war.”