Hunger, Nutrition and HIV/AIDS


Hunger, Nutrition and HIV/AIDS

November 27, 2009

It's a sobering reality: to die of hunger or die of AIDS. Food insecurity knows no borders but its effects are far more consequential for those bound up in other systemic problems. For people living with HIV/AIDS, the effects of food insecurity are particularly profound.

Malnutrition, food insecurity and poverty remain critically overlooked factors in the global HIV/AIDS pandemic. Extreme poverty threatens to blunt the benefit of HIV/AIDS treatment for those who are severely malnourished. Funding for HIV/AIDS focuses primarily on treatment rather than food and nutrition. Hungry, malnourished HIV/AIDS patients are six times more likely to die than people using anti-retroviral therapy (ART) who have the basic healthy food they need to survive. Malnutrition decreases an HIV-positive person's ability to absorb medicine and cope with drug side effects such as dizziness and vomiting. Malnutrition also delays the body's ability to recover and sustainably build immunity to infection and disease. Without food, HIV/AIDS patients often reduce their medicine dosages or cease taking their drug regimens altogether.

"These drugs are too strong, so if you take them without food you get weaker," reported a Ugandan HIV-positive woman in a recent article in The Guardian about food insecurity and HIV/AIDS. "But there are days when I'm forced to take drugs even without having anything to eat, especially when I get a serious attack. In other words, I take my medicine occasionally."

A more holistic model for HIV/AIDS care that integrates nutrition, nutrition education, sustainable food security and livelihood strategies is needed to address the root causes of poverty. Fortunately, some grassroots organizations have been implementing this model for years, providing powerful case studies that demonstrate how funding grassroots organizations enables communities to address their holistic needs and concerns.

Kisumu Medical Education Trust (K-MET)—an AJWS grassroots partner—addresses health, education and development in the rural areas of western Kenya. Through community-led services and capacity building, K-MET has developed programs to improve reproductive health, nutrition and the overall quality of life for vulnerable communities and people living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA).

"Food insecurity is a big issue in the region," said Monica Oguttu, the Executive Director of K-MET. "Several years ago, not many people talked about nutrition because they did not have any food at all. But among people with HIV/AIDS, the priority has been access to food, not drugs. K-MET understands that nutrition and HIV/AIDS treatment do not exist in isolation; they are completely connected."

In 2001, K-MET began to manufacture nutrient-rich flour called Nutri-meal, produced with raw local ingredients such as peanuts, pumpkin seeds, millet and sorghum, and distribute it to PLWHA and vulnerable children in K-MET's home-based care program. The results yielded dramatic improvements in health and nutrition, particularly among PLWHA. K-MET also developed kitchen gardening projects and formed breastfeeding clubs to expand its food security efforts and to sensitize local communities to the critical importance of nutrition. Since adequate nutrition enhances the effectiveness of drug regimens, HIV/AIDS patients and other clients on strong drug regimens have greatly benefited from K-MET's commitment to making supplements free or available at a low cost.

AJWS provides support for K-MET's nutrition and food security program, an initiative that addresses the critical nutritional needs of clients and their families who face food insecurity and malnutrition. The program trains community health workers in basic nutrition and teaches them how to prepare nutritious local foods. AJWS also supports K-MET's kitchen gardening program and other food security projects to ensure that rural communities and PLWHA have sustained access to nutritious foods and increased income.

"Before K-MET, my drug regimens did not work so well because I was not given healthy foods," reported a K-MET home-based care client living with HIV/AIDS. "I felt tired and sick all the time. With the help of K-MET's home-based care, now I have more energy. I live each day feeling healthier and more alive."