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BOTSWANA: Safari operators alleviating AIDS crisis

Photo: Botswana Tourism
Safari camps are big business in the Okavango Delta
Maun, 22 February 2008 (PlusNews) - Small charter planes fly tourists from all over the world to safari camps in Botswana's Okavango Delta, where they view wildlife by day and pay up to US$1,000 a night to stay in luxury lodges or rough it in five-star tents.

The safari camps are mainly expatriate owned and managed, but guests are waited on, cooked for and guided through the bush by people from Maun, the largest town in the district and the gateway to the Okavango. After the government, safari camp operators are the biggest employers.

Most of the camps are only reachable by air, so employees spend three months at a time in the bush, working and living together. Many are young and single, while those who are married are rarely employed as couples and usually leave their spouses behind in Maun.

In other parts of the world, after-hours boredom would not be considered a dangerous occupational hazard, but this is Botswana, where one in four adults is infected with HIV.

"Let's say a camp has 12 staff and you're there for three months. You finish work and it's boring and it's quiet," said Bonti Botunile, a relief manager who has worked at a number of safari camps. "People are social creatures; they're going to get together and then break up and move on, and some won't disclose their [HIV] status because they fear rejection."

Companies have to foot the bill for HIV/AIDS-related absenteeism; sick employees must be flown out and relief workers flown in. A few years ago, safari camp operators began waking up to the fact that HIV/AIDS was bad for business.

"A lot of people died, a lot had to be flown to hospital; they were constantly having to retrain," said Botunile. "They realised that if we don't do something, our businesses are going to suffer."

A number of the companies met with local health authorities to form a committee that now meets every two months to coordinate HIV/AIDS programmes for camp employees.

"Companies do their best"

The companies pay the costs of regularly flying doctors, nurses and counsellors from the Maun District Health Team into the camps to attend to staff members' health needs and to conduct voluntary counselling and HIV testing. Many companies also employ full-time welfare officers and have a nurse on call to provide medical advice.

Before becoming a welfare officer for A&K Safaris, Mary Hastag worked for 10 different safari camp operators between 2004 and 2006, providing HIV/AIDS education. "At the time, there wasn't much happening, but now most companies have workplace policies, welfare officers and lay counsellors. It's a big improvement," she told IRIN/PlusNews.

''A lot of people died, a lot had to be flown to hospital; they were constantly having to retrain.''
Lecco Masoko, a welfare officer and AIDS councillor for a company that operates three camps in the Okavango, gives employees information on how to stay healthy and encourages them to be tested. "By October last year, virtually all of our staff knew their status," he said.

Although he knows that about 36 percent of employees are HIV positive, he doesn't know an individual's status unless they decide to disclose it, but said many employees were open about being HIV positive.

"People tend to be more open about their HIV status in the camps than they are in town," commented Allison Brown, a nurse contracted by 25 safari operators to provide medical advice and evaluations.

By special arrangement with Maun Hospital, camp employees who are on antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and have been declared stable by a doctor can pick up a three-month supply of the drugs when they come home on leave, but Brown said the HIV/AIDS clinic at the hospital did not always have enough stock to give them medicine for three months at a time.

Hastag said the safari operators' good intentions often came up against the limitations of the local public health service. "There's a shortage of medical staff and drugs, so even if the companies do their best, at times the District Health Team doesn't go to the camps every month because of staff shortages." February was one such month, when A&K had to fly employees in need of medical attention to Maun.

According to Brown, newly arrived expatriate managers also sometimes lacked sufficient support and information to help them deal with HIV and AIDS.  "Management is under a lot of pressure," she said. "They've got busy lodges, guests who're paying a lot of money, and staff who are sometimes sick."

Behaviour change a challenge

Ensuring that HIV-positive employees receive all the medical care and healthy food that they need is one thing; making sure that HIV-negative employees stay that way is more difficult.

Male and female condoms are available at all the camps, and some companies have built sports fields and installed satellite television to combat the boredom factor, but convincing employees to change their behaviour is not easy.

Staff receive information about how to minimise their HIV risk, but "most are single, and there's a habit of having one partner in camp and one in Maun," said Hastag.

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Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews, Economy/Business - PlusNews, HIV/AIDS (PlusNews), Prevention - PlusNews,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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