TOPICS : Nutrition the key to AIDS treatment

People living with HIV and AIDS in two corners of Asia may benefit from a campaign that seeks to broaden public policy responses to the syndrome. Central to this new drive is to make nutrition programmes a part of treatment, say experts. HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a retrovirus that can cause AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a condition which leaves humans vulnerable to opportunistic infections.

There are some countries in South and South-east Asia that are aware about the link between AIDS and nutrition, but “there are no formal plans at the national level,” says Randa Saadeh, a scientist in the nutrition for health and development division of the World Health Organisation (WHO). “What is done is on a scattered basis.”

“If we don’t include nutrition in our responses, we will be missing something in our care,” Saadeh explained at the end of a week-long meeting held here to drum up support for a regional drive that aims to have concrete measures in place by 2009. “This is the first time that this region is being targeted. We want governments to adopt strong positions as a solution,” she said.

The absence of such policies has more to do with “the lack of awareness about the critical relationship between HIV (and AIDS) and nutrition,” says Nigel Rollins, a professor of maternal and child health at the University of Kwazulu-Natal, in South Africa. “In Africa, it took 20 years for people to wake up to this link,” the delegate said. Strong nutrition programmes are vital for HIV and AIDS initiatives that range from prevention, mother-to-child transmission to care for those taking anti-AIDS drugs. “Traditionally, the population that faced food insecurity was also the ones who were vulnerable to HIV,” Rollins said. “Being malnourished has an impact on your immune system, making you more susceptible to disease like malaria or HIV.”

Studies of the four million people living with HIV and AIDS in Africa in 2006 revealed that lack of nutrition was a problem for many, the WHO stated in a background note. According to WHO, the complex relationship between Nutrition, HIV and AIDS is reflected in the unique energy needs of people living with the killer disease. “Evidence has established that people living with HIV have higher energy needs than those who are not. Asymptomatic HIV-positives need 10% more energy than those who are not HIV-positive,” it revealed. “Those at advanced stages need 20-30% more energy. HIV-positive children who are losing weight need 50-100% more energy.”

The new campaign in this region goes up against prevailing national policies that have isolated HIV programmes from nutrition initiatives. “At the moment, nutrition policies of governments do not address the HIV/AIDS concerns and the AIDS policies of governments have not factored in the nutrition issues,” said JVR Prasada Rao, head of the Asia-Pacific division of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS). “They have to be addressed together, as one.” — IPS