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Coca-Cola to help fight AIDS

LONDON, England (CNN) - Drinks giant Coca-Cola has signed a three-year partnership with UNAIDS, the United Nations agency co-ordinating the battle against HIV and AIDS.

After years of pressure from activists to join the war against the disease, the company is putting its massive distribution and marketing system to use in the fight against the epidemic in Africa.

It plans to offer a range of its services to support AIDS education, prevention and treatment programmes on the continent.

The services will range from lending marketing executives to the use of Coca-Cola billboards for awareness campaigns to delivering testing kits and condoms.

However, the companies' delivery vehicles are unlikely to be used for the distribution of anti-retroviral medicines as few of them are equipped with the necessary refrigeration.

The services will initially be made available in five African countries, mostly in Coca-Cola's largest markets:
South Africa

They will be organised by the firm's non-profit arm, Africa Foundation, which is involved in the company's charity work in Africa.

The president of the company's African business, Alex Cummings, said: "We are proud to be joining the UNAIDS team in the fight against AIDS. Coca-Cola is completely committed to the future of the African continent, its economy, people, communities and health. We will do all that we can to enable Africans to reach their full potential."

The company also said it was considering making a financial contribution in some form, but it had not yet decided whether it would contribute to the global AIDS funds planned by the U.N.

U.N. officials said they hoped the involvement of such a high profile company would encourage other firms to help.

"We are excited about this partnership and what it means for the fight against AIDS, "said executive director of UNAIDS Peter Piot.

"In many countries I think there will be quite an impact. We're hoping this partnership will set a tone for others," he said.

Pressure groups such as Action for South Africa were more sceptical about the partnership, saying Coca-Cola's offer did not address the important issue of treating those suffering from the disease.

"While prevention and education are key areas and we welcome any business initiatives, such offers do nothing to provide equal access to treatment," head of campaigns Aditi Sharma told CNN.

"Economies are facing meltdown in Africa and we need to treat those suffering for the disease. Providing financial backing to treat employees and their families would be more concrete, " she said.

Largest employer

Together with its bottlers, Coca-Cola is the largest employer on the continent, with a total of 100,000 employees.

It pays for AIDS drugs for its own 1,500 employees and their families through medical insurance, but it has yet to decide whether to extend any help to those working for its bottling firms.

Although few of Coca-Cola's own staff have been affected by the disease, some of its bottlers employ extra staff to make up for the percentage they expect to lose to the disease.

The company has a lot at stake on a continent where it sees a lot of potential for growth in sales.

Last month, its largest bottler in South Africa, Amalgamated Beverage Industries, blamed the HIV crisis for weak sales

Coca-Cola's partnership with UNAIDS is one of a number of corporate initiatives being announced by the U.N. ahead of a special meeting on HIV and AIDS at the end of June in New York.

The organisation hopes to use the meeting to galvanise political commitment to fighting what it says countries have agreed constitutes a "global emergency."

Car firm DaimlerChrysler has also announced a comprehensive new AIDS programme, citing the epidemic as the biggest deterrent to long-term foreign investment in South Africa.

• Coca Cola

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