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Coca-Cola Teaches African Teens About AIDS


U.S. Soft Drink Company Teaches African Teens About AIDS

Coca-Cola, the largest multinational company on the African continent, has long offered HIV/AIDS education and treatment to its workers. But in recent years, it has put its corporate clout behind attempts to stem the tide of HIV infections among the next generation of workers.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, nearly 25 million of the 40 million people living with HIV are in sub-Saharan Africa.

With 650 employees across the African continent and another 60,000 employed by independent bottling companies licensed to use its trademark, Coca-Cola has long been committed to educating its workers about HIV/AIDS.

But, according to David Brown, director of employee relations for the Atlanta soft drink company, stigma keeps some HIV-infected employees from coming forward to accept free anti-retroviral treatment or counseling. "This is not a Coca-Cola issue only," he said, "but an Africa-wide issue." In fact, he said, experts are unlikely to report progress on erasing that stigma.

That is why, in recent months, Coca-Cola has tried to work on the problem by partnering with nonprofit groups that focus on youth, to help the next generation talk openly about sexual and reproductive health.

The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation, with a donation of nearly $3 million, formed a three-year partnership with Dance4Life. The group reaches young people in nine countries -- South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Tanzania, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Sierra Leone -- with health messages delivered via the performing arts.

Young participants in Dance4Life school programs learn sexual-reproductive health lessons before presenting them to peers in dramatic, dance or musical performances.

Dance4Life also holds concerts featuring disc jockeys, rock groups and traditional Arabic music. After one such event in Egypt, an Islamic country in which dancing can be a sensitive issue, a 19-year-old girl named Heba approached organizers after the concert and said: "Tonight I've danced for the first time with other people. It was possible because I felt safe and connected."

Last month, Tiësto, a Dutch-born DJ who performs to sold-out stadiums and is working on a documentary for Dance4Life's HIV-prevention project, visited J.G. Zuma Secondary School in KwaMashu, South Africa.

Coca-Cola also has donated $1.5 million to the Africa Network for Children Orphaned or at Risk (ANCHOR), which seeks to get AIDS orphans back into schools in their communities. "We would never have gotten off the ground without Coca-Cola," said Marion Bunch, an ANCHOR founder, who is affiliated with Rotarians for Fighting AIDS.

Bunch said that a representative from Coca-Cola has gone with her to homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, "where adolescent heads-of-households are common." She said they went into "grubby, dirty, horrible hovels of places," where children are "so bereft, so in need of help, so humble that it is hard not to cry."

Coca-Cola gave ANCHOR "seed money" -- $50,000 -- in 2004, she said, which helped the group get enough results to attract even more partners: Emory University's School of Public Health and the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program.

ANCHOR seeks adults in the communities where the orphans live to care for them and help them go to school, but has no plans to build orphanages. The organization provides AIDS orphans with food, school supplies and "life-training skills" to make it easier for them to succeed at school.

So far, ANCHOR, with the help of Coca-Cola, has helped 30,000 orphans in South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Kenya, Nigeria and Cote d'Ivoire.

Because of its marketing expertise, Coca-Cola has banded with the Africa Broadcasting Media Partnership to produce HIV/AIDS awareness messages.

The company also has a relationship with the Global Business Coalition, an organization of 220 companies working to fight AIDS. "Clearly, Coca-Cola knows how to market. It also has distribution networks; maybe we can tap into that core competency," said David Stearns, spokesman for the coalition, which is based in New York.

Stearns said the soft drink company received an award for work it did in China, designing and distributing decks of playing cards in which each card includes a message about sexually transmitted diseases.

The target audience is Chinese migrant workers, who are vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and are known to enjoy playing cards while waiting for their next job.

ENDS

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