One of the greatest challenges facing the developing world lies with their limited access to quality healthcare, a situation that threatens to jeopardize or undermine economic growth in these nations.

A group of healthcare executives and experts attending the G20 business summit in Seoul, South Korea has implored the body to adopt global health care as a permanent agenda at all future summits.

The health care advocates cited various data illustrating how poor medical services hurts economic growth in the developing countries.

For example, examining tea workers in Kenya, employees who were HIV-positive are about 33 percent less productive than their healthy peers.

The discussion panel looked closely at sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where lack of health care is at crisis levels. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), in much of the continent, there are less than 2.5 hospital beds per 1,000 population (the average for the world excluding SSA is about 3.8). Deaths among children as a result of diarrheal diseases, pneumonia, malaria, HIV-AIDS and even measles are widespread here and far outpace the frequency of such deaths in the remainder of the world.

One of the speakers at the health care forum, Cynthia Carroll, chief executive officer of mining company giant Anglo-America, cited how her firm, which operates in 40 countries, including many developing countries, has seen first-hand the impact of ill, untreated workers on business. For example, with respect to the spread of HIV-AIDS in its southern Africa workforce, messages of prevention have failed to stop the incidence of the disease.

Carroll estimated that in 2000, a full 25 percent of her southern African workforce were HIV-infected, creating a significant burden on the company's finances. Specifically, the overall cost impact of HIV/AIDS was estimated to be equivalent to 3.4 percent of the company's payroll.

By 2002, Anglo-American resolved to provide free HIV testing and treatment to its African workers.

AIDS sickness and deaths were reduced dramatically, she said. Morale improved and our shareholders supported our measures. Investing in health care has improved our businesses.

Carroll indicated that in South Africa alone, her company has a total of 110,000 full-time employees and contractors, of whom 17 percent are infected with AIDS (or about 14,000 people). The company is spending about $10-million per annum on HIV-AIDS treatment/prevention; and has spent a total of $100-million thus far on these efforts.

Another speaker at the forum, Yasuchika Hasegawa, president of Takeda Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd., one of the largest Asian drugmakers, pointed to the so-called Takeda Initiative which has committed to spending 1-billion yen (or more than $10-million) over ten years to help strengthen health care systems throughout the developing world and has challenged other companies to join in this effort. In addition, Takeda hopes that sovereign government start spending more significant amounts of their budgets on health (such as the 15 percent pledged by African leaders in 2001).

The emerging markets represent the future of business growth around the world, she added. It will require collective action to deal with a problem of this magnitude; we can't leave it to governments alone. Companies need to get involved; it's in our collective long-term interest.