A regular food supply is vital for people living with HIV as nutrition plays an important role in improving their general standard of health. Many Zambians with HIV however are failing to adhere to treatment regimes because they don’t have enough to eat.
In Mkushi’s Chalata village, poverty has robbed some HIV patients of the physical strength they need to take antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). The drugs increase people’s appetites and many choose to stop taking them when they are unable to buy the food they need.
People living with HIV who stop taking ARVs are more likely to develop opportunistic infections or a resistance to first-line drugs.
Donor countries have invested billions of dollars into antiretroviral treatment (ART) and other medications to counter the growing impact of AIDS in developing countries but the benefits of their investments are mitigated by poverty and a lack of food and clean water.
ARVs are most effective when taken by people who are adequately nourished. Food support can play an important role in ensuring that these people receive the full benefits of their treatment.
“It is irresponsible to ignore the issue of hunger and malnutrition particularly in the battle against AIDS,” said Dennis Muponda, an HIV-positive father of four from the Mulila area in Chalata.
Mr Muponda lost his job in Ndola’s Chifubu town in 2004 after he became sick and was diagnosed with HIV. He was immediately placed on ARVs but his loss of income meant his children dropped out of school and he did not have the support he needed to cope with his marriage breakup and failing health.
“When my health failed me, I had no option but to be back to the village in Mkushi where my mother is, this was after my relatives that were living in town abandoned me because of my illness,” he said.
Mr Muponda said life in the village was unbearable for him and his children and that he would often go for days without food and medication.
“I had stopped taking my ARVs because of lack of food until the home-based care givers from Family Health Trust found me home on my death bed, and encouraged me to start the drugs again,” said Mr Muponda.
The care workers are helping Mr Muponda with food and he hopes to see his children go into school but he does not see the point in continuing to live in such difficult and stressful circumstances.
He has reached a point where death seems like his only option but if he just had enough food to eat he would be stronger and would not be prone to opportunistic infections.
Many more people in Mkushi are experiencing the effects of hunger and are compromising their ARV adherence. According to World Health Organization, the energy needs of adults on ARVs increase by 20% to 30% because of poor absorption in the intestinal tract.
Chalata Rural Health Centre Officer Lackson Chisenga said the facility had started providing food assistance to the villagers in a bid to encourage people in the area to adhere to their medication.
“We are sensitizing people to the importance of adherence through our officer nurse trained in that area, although it will take time for people to grasp the message, our campaign for a change of attitude among the villagers would help us,” Chisenga said.
The United States Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for AIDS in Africa said nutrition interventions for HIV programs were often overlooked in the international HIV policy debate and remain critically under-funded.
The Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS has forecast that 900,000 people receiving ARVs for the first time in 2008 will require food assistance and that the average cost of providing food to a patient is just US $0.66 a day, or less than 2% of the cost of current drug programs.
The Ministry of Health should consider supporting the distribution of drugs with the provision of food.
Africa Science News Service