Making a healthy improvement

Making a healthy improvement

While drivers are the “life” of a transport operation, their health is one of the most neglected aspects of their job – with many suffering from disorders including diabetes and HIV/Aids. GAVIN MYERS asks Tertius Wessels, MD of Corridor Empowerment Project (CEP), about the overall health of South African drivers today.

It feels good to be able to start this article with some positive news – the general health of South African truck drivers seems to be improving! The struggle is slowly being won.

“Our drivers are starting to take ownership of their health,” says Wessels. “They are much more educated today. They know they have to manage any illness and many of them approach us to find out if we have chronic medication for them (all Trucking Wellness clinics stock medication for primary health care and some diseases). It’s all improving – a little bit at a time.”

Trucking Wellness is an initiative of the National Bargaining Council for the Road Freight and Logistics Industry (NBCRFLI), on whose behalf CEP is the appointed Trucking Wellness services project manager.

Wessels explains that when he started with the Trucking Wellness programme in 2002, the prevalence rate of HIV was between 18 and 20 percent. “Today we are barely reaching nine percent – so there has been a drastic decline in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) amongst the drivers,” he says proudly.

Wessels says that drivers today are really worried about their lifestyles, which is evident in the number of visits the programme’s 22 clinics and 11 mobile units has received this year alone. About 25 000 people visited Trucking Wellness centres between January and August.

Of those, 2 200 cases of STIs were identified and treated (just under ten percent) and, so far, 1,1 million condoms have been distributed by the programme. (Around 15 million condoms have been distributed since inception.)

There is, however, still a lot more to be done. HIV/Aids still ranks as one of the top three health problems among South African truck drivers, along with diabetes and high blood pressure.

“I am worried about the general health status of truck drivers in South Africa,” says Wessels. “There are a lot of diseases that they don’t have the opportunity to address through normal centres. It all has to do with their lifestyle: they are on the road all day every day and accessibility is a major problem.”

Further compounding the problem is that, while it’s very difficult for them to access conventional healthcare services, it is very easy for them to access bad food and cheap sex – two of the more unfortunate aspects of life on the road that the trucking industry is very familiar with.

“Let’s face it: out on the road the drivers can access sex workers in every town. They spend a lot of time on the road. They are lonely, and it is cheap to pick up a sex worker next to the road.

“They also have unhealthy eating habits: they drink Coke and Grandpa to stay awake, dinner is pap and meat wherever they stay – they don’t go for veggies and a balanced diet,” Wessels notes.

Physical exercise (or the lack thereof), is also a current focus of the programme – even if it’s simply encouraging drivers to stretch regularly when they stop.

Overall, though, Wessels reiterates that drivers are responding. “They are really worried and the Trucking Wellness programme currently plays a major role in educating them about leading a healthy lifestyle,” he says.

“Hours on the road are long, so it’s not easy, but they shouldn’t have a pie and Coke every day, for example. There are truck stops out there that serve a proper meal, including vegetables and chicken, and not just pap and meat …”

While drivers are given advice on what to eat and how to follow these diets, Wessels would still like to see drivers visiting clinics on a regular basis – every four to six weeks – to be screened. The companies they work for are also advised to be proactive.

“What we need is to get the employers to contact us and get our mobile centres out to their premises. We can then get to the drivers on the ground and make them aware that they might have a problem and that they can access the services.

“The mobile centres can test glucose, cholesterol, body-mass index, tuberculosis and STIs including HIV. It’s free of charge to book for a vehicle to come through – anywhere in the country!”

What if a driver is found to be infected with HIV or to be suffering from some other illness? As with any such testing, drivers are given a pre- and post-test counselling session as to what they can expect and how they can handle their health going forward.

The organisation will undertake to enrol a driver found to be HIV positive on an anti-retroviral treatment programme, where they can see a private doctor and laboratory and receive monthly medication at any place where they feel comfortable.

“He never has to stand in a queue again to receive treatment,” Wessels explains. “There is also now an improved Wellness Fund Health Plan through the NBCRFLI, available to employees within the road freight and logistics industry, who are active NBCRFLI members contributing to the Wellness Fund.”

Originally launched in July 2011, this scheme was placed under the service provision of Affinity Health on January 1. It grants members and up to two eligible spouses access to a range of healthcare solutions they might otherwise not consider or be able to afford.

These include GP consultations, access to acute and chronic medication, dentistry, optometry, emergency services, and hospital and injury benefits. (According to Payscale.com, the average salary for a South African truck driver is R118 384 per year.)

However, more funds are still required. “A lot of our funding comes from donors, but they haven’t been able to give as much over the last few years. We need industry to really get involved and see the bigger picture. We don’t need massive contributions per month; if somebody adopts a clinic and sponsors it, that will relive a burden on the industry,” Wessels notes.

“We need properly educated, healthy drivers. A healthy driver is a safe driver,” he adds. Without a doubt, our industry needs more of those, too.

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