HIV, hunger, and health

Mary Lungu, 11, is HIV-positive and visits St. Francis Hospital in eastern Zambia with her mother, Prisca, for regular checkups, which includes questions about her diet. Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

By Stephen Padre

Today is World AIDS Day, a day set aside on December 1 every year to rally support for people living with HIV and AIDS and to remember those who have died from the disease.

HIV and AIDS do not get as much attention as they did a decade or two ago. There are some good reasons for this. Medical science has made great strides in finding treatments for the disease, and with proper care, people can live for many years with HIV before developing AIDS. Still, a cure for AIDS has still not been found. According to the United Nations AIDS organization, nearly 37 million people globally were living with HIV in 2014. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 66 percent of the global total of new HIV infections. 

So Africa is still very much ground zero for AIDS. Sub-Saharan Africa is also the part of the world with the highest concentration of hunger. One person in four there is undernourished, according to the World Food Programme.

Earlier in the AIDS pandemic, the disease was viewed largely as a medical issue. To get AIDS under control, the medical community decided on a prescriptive method: give people the right medications and access to them. But today, a few decades into the pandemic, the larger development community, which includes those concerned about health and hunger issues, recognizes the disease as part of a greater whole. HIV is being treated along with other poverty-related issues that are viewed through medical, hunger, gender, economic, and a variety of other lenses.

The medical community in Zambia, one country in southern Africa, the region hardest hit by AIDS and hunger, sees a clear link between HIV and malnutrition. HIV-positive outpatients at St. Francis, a church-supported mission hospital in eastern Zambia, get almost as much nutrition counseling as medical HIV treatment.

PATH, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, runs the Thrive program at St. Francis. Thrive assists the hospital in treating HIV-positive adults and children who live in the area. People who come to the hospital for regular medical checkups for their HIV are asked by doctors and medical staff about their eating habits. Hospital staff are equally concerned with patients taking their antiretroviral medications as they are with patients eating a daily well-balanced diet. They know that medications can’t work effectively in a body if it isn’t fueled properly with nutritious food.

St. Francis’ efforts are due in large part to support from the U.S. government. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the main way our government carries out poverty-focused development assistance overseas, funds the Thrive program of PATH. And the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief supplies antiretroviral drugs to patients free of charge at the hospital. These are the U.S. government programs Bread often asks anti-hunger activists to advocate for with their members of Congress.

(Bread’s 2016 Offering of Letters will feature Zambia and the work of USAID in nutrition and HIV treatment.)

Those who work at St. Francis understand that people’s (medical) health and nutritional needs go hand-in-hand. In fact, that is the same argument that Bread for the World Institute’s 2016 Hunger Report makes. The Nourishing Effect: Ending Hunger, Improving Health, Reducing Inequality shows that hunger – a lack of nutrition – can be hazardous to your health and that poor health can also lead to hunger and poverty.

One of the international themes of this year’s World AIDS Day is “Getting to zero; end AIDS by 2030.” That timeline for ending the AIDS pandemic is fitting because Bread for the World and other organizations working to end hunger have set for themselves a goal of ending hunger by 2030 as well. We can end AIDS and malnutrition at the same time. But we can’t end these scourges independently. The world needs to understand that hunger and health are inextricably linked.

Stephen Padre is the managing editor at Bread for the World.

Photo: Mary Lungu, 11, is HIV-positive and visits St. Francis Hospital in eastern Zambia with her mother, Prisca, for regular checkups. A checkup at the hospital includes questions about Lungu’s diet. Joseph Molieri/Bread for the World.

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