Ahead of the International AIDS Conference next week in Washington, D.C., Martin Bloem, chief of Nutrition and HIV Policy at the World Food Programme, shares the impact of food and nutrition on the HIV response.
For Tankiso, an HIV-positive mother living in rural Lesotho, food has made all the difference.
In Harare, Zimbabwe, people living with HIV receive vouchers from WFP that entitle them to a month’s supply of cereal blend and a household ration of food items, to be collected from one of a number of local shops. Copyright: WFP/David Orr
“When I first learned of my HIV status, I also learned about the services available at my local health clinic, including WFP food assistance,” said Tankiso. “Since 2011, I’ve followed my medical treatment and visited the clinic regularly, where I also benefit from WFP’s nutrition support.”
Scientific evidence and our own experience shows that nutrition activities for people living with HIV—including nutritional assessments, counselling, education and fortified food for malnourished patients—has significant impacts on the health of patients, on their ability to stay on treatment and on the effectiveness of treatment.
In the first months of treatment, the mortality rate of malnourished patients is up to six times higher than for those patients who are not malnourished. In Lesotho, where more than one-quarter million people live with HIV, almost one-fifth of patients on treatment for HIV or tuberculosis (the leading cause of death among people living with HIV) are malnourished when they begin treatment.
Tankiso also receives WFP food rations for her household, which has suffered financially since her husband lost his job last year. “The food I receive keeps us strong and healthy,” said Tankiso. “Without regular food, our lives would be very difficult. I’m very happy to get this support.”
The effects of HIV can lead to rising health care costs and loss of income. These food rations act as a safety net for poor households affected by HIV so that they don’t have to sell their land or animals, stop taking medication or send their children to work instead of school.
Together, food and nutrition support do more than fill stomachs; access to food and nutrition, when linked to medical support, provides an incentive for people to access life-saving treatment. Greater access to treatment eventually means fewer new HIV infections.
This is especially true in rural areas where hospitals and clinics are scarce and transport may be costly and take a long time. For example, in Ethiopia, WFP has traditionally carried out its HIV programmes in urban areas. With a recent grant from the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), WFP plans to expand its food and nutrition activities to four new regions where health care systems are weak, with the aim to help many more people access treatment for the first time.
Next week, WFP will travel to the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C., where thousands of policymakers, scientists, activists and humanitarian workers will discuss how we can turn the tide on HIV. As part of this goal, our aim is to increase recognition of the great impacts of food and nutrition assistance in the response to HIV.
If you will be in Washington, please join WFP, Harvard Medical School and Partners in Health for an open satellite session for conference participants on Monday, July 23. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter via @WFP, @WFP_media and @mdslotznick.
-Martin Bloem, Chief of Nutrition/HIV Policy, World Food Programme