Rome - As world leaders prepare for the first UN summit on HIV/AIDS, the United Nations World Food Programme called on the global community to recognize that eradicating hunger is critical in slowing the spread of AIDS.
"The link between hunger and AIDS is frequently overlooked and must be addressed immediately if the international community is to truly come to grips with this crisis", said Mr. Namanga Ngongi, WFP Deputy Executive Director, "Poor nutrition increases the progression of HIV to AIDS. Good nutrition is critical to any prevention and care strategy." Access to food and good nutrition can go a long way towards alleviating the suffering and interrupting the downward spiral of malnutrition, increased fatigue, illness and decreased work productivity. "Although the statistics are not yet complete, there is increasing evidence that most HIV/AIDS patients in hospitals in poor countries are there because they are suffering from malnutrition. My concern is this fact has not been well-articulated nor fully appreciated." The impact of HIV/AIDS on poor families is not always fully appreciated. In many places with high rates of HIV incidence, families are being forced to mortgage their land and sell productive assets to pay for food and medicine. Children are often withdrawn from school in order to work in the fields, earn income or care for sick adults, thereby depriving them of a better future. AIDS has a direct impact on agricultural production and people's ability to feed themselves. People who used to farm become too sick to tend their fields. Women are spending much of their time caring for those who are sick, instead of growing food. The added burden of soaring medical expenses can rapidly send a poor family on a downward spiral from which there is little hope of recovery. With farmers dying in the prime of life, the potential long-term impact on nutrition and food security is devastating. Furthermore, when all of the households coping mechanisms are exhausted, family members resort to survival strategies. Among the most desperate is trading sex in return for food or money, putting women, girls and boys at even greater risk of becoming infected. But HIV/AIDS is not only found in stable environments. In fact, an important component in the spread of HIV that has been overlooked is the role of humanitarian emergencies-conflict and massive population movements fuel the spread of the epidemic. The growing number of conflicts and civil wars, and associated camps for refugee's and internally displaced persons has created an artificial setting of overcrowding, food insecurity, and a total breakdown in medical services and a lack of supplies. In these complex settings, young women are often targets of sexual violence. Currently, WFP is already working with communities worldwide, using food aid to help slow the progression of the disease and cushion the devastating effect it has on people's ability to feed themselves. In both its development and humanitarian operations, WFP is reaching millions of AIDS affected families. For example, in Zambia WFP is working with community based organisations that serve people living with AIDS. WFP food is provided through a counseling center where these people, especially women, get training in marketable skills. Even though the profits are not large, this income, combined with the food supplement, helps to keep people living with HIV productive and healthy. In turn, the quality of life for the whole family is improved. Tuberculosis (TB) is one of the main opportunistic infections for people with AIDS. In Cambodia, WFP provides nutritional support to TB patients, many of whom also have HIV and AIDS. This food helps people to continue their lengthy course of medical treatment without interruption. Uninterrupted treatment of TB is critical -- inconsistent or partial treatment can contribute to its further spread and result in drug-resistant strains. With WFP support, and in conjunction with private transport companies, an Ethiopian non-governmental organization provides WFP contracted truck drivers with information and training about HIV/AIDS and how to prevent infection. Training sessions have been held in towns on the two main route hubs for the drivers. This type of prevention training will be replicated in other countries. These are only a few examples of WFP's work in combating HIV/AIDS globally. WFP is exploring more ways to improve the nutrition and food security of the hardest hit families in collaboration with partners such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).