TOPICS : Best defence against AIDS is economic

Christina Scott

If one wants to find out how AIDS is increasing hunger and malnutrition, one can expect to harvest an abundance of depressing information. But soon, this may change. “In the last five years alone, there have been about 500 different papers on food and nutrition security related to AIDS,” said Stuart Gillespie of the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. AIDS intensifies poverty in many devastating ways. Ailing farmers do not plough their fields, or pass on their knowledge of seeds and seasons to the next generation. Desperate widows are more likely to sell their bodies for sex in order to feed their children. The sick need more high-quality food than before, but find it far more difficult to eat. Rural families reliant on money sent home by a relative working in the city suddenly find themselves

with no source of income. The few people who receive life-prolonging anti-retroviral drugs may find that the medication is handicapped without expensive vitamin supplements and other food aid.

And while the richer portion of the population may make the most noise about HIV/AIDS, the poorest suffer the most. In Tanzania, human rights lawyers brought court cases on behalf of dispossessed widows and orphans that the government changed the laws of inheritance so that land and possessions did not all flow in the direction of the brothers of the deceased. In parts of India, people researching small-scale agricultural improvements found to their surprise that this could have a discernible knock-on impact on disease trends. Even though there are creative ways to fill the empty stomachs triggered by the AIDS epidemic, tracking down success stories requires a lot of detective work. One of the problems facing isolated community organisations and lobby groups is that they are simply too busy helping people to document their efforts in ways that satisfy sceptical academics and funders, who like to point out that drought, famine, politics and globalisation can also cause devastating hunger and malnutrition. In the meantime, the virus is hunting for new homes.

Most small, cash-strapped organisations are not in a position to tell others facing the same issues about their attempts to solve the problem. So the epidemic spreads but solutions stay at home. Sub-Saharan Africa will play an crucial role in charting the way forward, particularly for Asian countries, which are equally dependent on subsistence agriculture but lag behind the continent in terms of the epidemic’s lifespan. Drugs versus food was an issue for South Africans who knew that their rollout of anti-retroviral drugs has been delayed amidst bizarre advice from the Ministry of Health suggesting that patients should eat more olive oil, local potatoes and lemons. Both are important, Gillespie said. Meanwhile, small-scale agricultural specialists involved with getting AIDS patients to grow more nutritious crops bristled when economists suggested that it was more effective for farmers to grow high-value crops and buy what they needed instead. “The question is whether they are accessing food at all.” Gillespie wants everyone trying to tackle poverty, in whatever way, to use bifocals. They needed to use what he called “an HIV lens” to view their efforts. — IPS