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South African AIDS Alarm

Gold mining giant AngloGold estimated Wednesday that between 25 and 30 percent of its South African work force was HIV positive.

One of the world's largest gold producers, AngloGold has about 44,000 South African employees, while another 6,000 work at its mines in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Mali and Namibia. Its HIV prevalence estimate was based on tests done last year on more than 1,800 employees.

The results were in line with previous research done by the company, said Dr. Petra Kruger, a manager of AngloGold's HIV/AIDS program.

While older research indicated that 98 percent of miners were aware of AIDS and how it was spread, there was no recent data available to indicate whether there had been a change in their behavior, she said.

AngloGold estimates that at its peak, the epidemic will cause its gold production costs to rise by between $4 and $6 an ounce. The company said if were to do nothing to manage the epidemic, this cost would rise to $9 an ounce. The present price of gold is about $304 an ounce.

AngloGold spokesman Steve Lenahan denied that the company put "profits before people's lives."

"We have a state of the art hospital here and an HIV-AIDS program that is one of the best in the country," he said on a visit to a company mining complex in Carletonville, west of Johannesburg.

"AngloGold has a comprehensive response to HIV/AIDS, from preventative management programs to the provision of assistance to and treatment of those who are affected," Bobby Godsell, the company's chief executive officer, said in a statement. "This strategy will ensure that the company...continues to function profitably."

It was also involved in research to develop an HIV vaccine, promoting condom use and offering counseling, treatment and a retirement system for those no longer able to work.

Gold mines, with their labor forces made up of migrant workers living in single-sex hostels, are particularly hard hit. Workers living far from their families are more likely to visit prostitutes.

The 250,000-strong National Union of Mineworkers and analysts have long criticized the industry for doing too little too late and for its lack of a unified approach.

"For the first time we've seen how much effort (AngloGold) has put into this problem but there is a lot of concern at the lack of cooperation in the industry," said one analyst, who did not want to be named.

The government estimated last year that about 4.7 million South Africans — one in nine — are HIV positive, and has been widely criticized for not doing enough to combat the epidemic and provide access to treatment.

The government last week stopped short of acknowledging the link between HIV and AIDS as a fact, but said it would act on the "premise" that the human immunodeficiency virus caused AIDS.

Analysts say the government's confusing policy was one reason why it has taken the mining industry so long to formulate its own plans to distribute anti-retroviral drugs.

A study carried out by the independent Medical Research Council found up to 7 million people could die of AIDS by 2010, unless there was more active intervention.

Mining is a vital foreign exchange earner for South Africa, but about 20 percent of the industry's 400,000 workers are HIV positive. HIV leads to full-blown AIDS and ultimately death. There is no cure for the epidemic.