HIV: Time to deliver more than drugs

Published on 16 August 2006

Donor countries have poured billions of dollars into antiretrovirals and other medication to counter the growing impact of AIDS in Africa, Asia and Latin America with barely a thought to nutrition.

Donor countries have poured billions of dollars into antiretrovirals and other medication to counter the growing impact of AIDS in Africa, Asia and Latin America with barely a thought to nutrition.

Funding antiretrovirals with no thought to food and nutrition is a little like paying a fortune to fix a car but not setting aside money to buy gas

Robin Jackson, Chief of WFP’s HIV/AIDS Service

At the International AIDS conference in Toronto, the United Nations World Food Programme today called for action among all stakeholders in the fight against AIDS to make food and nutritional support part of the essential package of care for people affected by HIV.

“It is time to deliver more than drugs. It is time to deliver cost effective and comprehensive programs that include the basic food and nutrition needed for people living with HIV/AIDS and their families,” said Robin Jackson, Chief of WFP’s HIV/AIDS Service and Head of Delegation at a joint press conference with the Secretary-General’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Mr. Stephen Lewis and professor at Harvard Medical School and co-founder of the NGO Partners in Health, Dr. Paul Farmer.

Malnutrition and treatment

A new study released by HIV Medicine concluded that patients who start new antiretroviral therapy while they are malnourished are six times more likely to die than patients who are well nourished.

The study says the reason may be that malnutrition reduces patients’ ability to absorb the potent triple-drug antiretroviral therapy and leaves them unable to benefit from the lifesaving medicine.

Malnourished individuals also find it harder to cope with the therapy’s debilitating side effects and may take longer to recover their body’s immunity to infection.

Food urgent need

Food is often cited by people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS as their greatest and most urgent need. Yet, food has been forgotten in the standard treatment, care and support of HIV/AIDS.

Nutrition interventions for HIV programs are often overlooked in the international HIV policy debate and they remain critically under-funded.

WFP estimates that approximately one million of the 6.4 million people who will be enrolled in antiretroviral programmes in 2008 will need some kind of nutritional support.

The cost of providing them with assistance is just CAD $0.73 per patient per day, including all transport and programme costs.

For HIV patients, rations are typically only required for 6 months until they can get back on their feet.

Heightened susceptibility to infection

Poor nutrition heightens individual susceptibility to HIV-related infections while food insecurity makes it more likely that individuals adopt risky lifestyles that increase their vulnerability to being exposed to the virus.

If infection occurs, integrated nutrition, food security and HIV/AIDS interventions can promote positive living and prolong the asymptomatic period of relative health. When AIDS develops, nutrition and food security become important partners in treatment.

“We cannot win the battle against AIDS by focusing on drugs alone. Funding antiretrovirals with no thought to food and nutrition is a little like paying a fortune to fix a car but not setting aside money to buy gas,” says Robin Jackson.

WFP provides food assistance in 21 of the 25 nations with the highest HIV prevalence rates and has active HIV/AIDS interventions in 43 countries worldwide.

Rations vary but include basics like rice, beans, fortified cereals, oil and iodized salt ensuring essential nutrition to people living with HIV/AIDS.