Highlighting the Role of Hunger at International AIDS Conference

Mexico City: ACF presents findings on crucial role of nutrition in managing AIDS

The International humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger / ACF-USA has been selected to present its findings on the vital role that proper nutrition can play in alleviating the ill effects of AIDS at the upcoming International Conference on AIDS (Mexico City, August 3-8, 2008). The conference’s official scientific committee selected and validated ACF’s groundbreaking field research based on the aid organization’s recent experiences in Malawi and Mali.

Action Against Hunger has long documented the links between AIDS and malnutrition, highlighting how these conditions reinforce one another, sapping the health of millions of people—especially in sub-Saharan Africa—and undermining a population’s productive capacities and chances for economic development. ACF is to present its groundbreaking studies conducted in Malawi and Mali, where cure rates of 100% were achieved among severely malnourished children regardless of their HIV status—an unexpected outcome and one that indicates the fundamental role played by a proper diet in managing the impacts of HIV/AIDS.

Therapeutic Success in Malawi: Treating Malnourished Children with HIV / AIDS

Malawi has one of the highest prevalence of AIDS in the world at 14.2%, and humanitarian groups have been working with the government for years to address the impacts of AIDS and its social taboos. And while considerable progress has been made in Malawi—people now have access to free antiretroviral medications (ARVs), for example, and information on prevention and treatment now floods the airwaves—the country is still experiencing high rates of new AIDS cases, especially among vulnerable groups like children.

According to a recent Action Against Hunger study, one out of every four children treated in rehabilitation centers is HIV-positive in addition to being severely malnourished. Hunger is especially detrimental to the victims of AIDS, whose defenses are depleted and whose capacity for recovery has been hampered. In the past year, ACF has found that children afflicted with both diseases are three times more likely to die than HIV-negative children suffering from acute malnutrition: three of every ten malnourished, HIV-positive patients die during therapeutic treatment. At the same time, the majority of the children manage to fully recover their health regardless of their HIV status. “This is very encouraging as it confirms that properly detecting HIV during the treatment of acute malnutrition ensures a high probability that malnourished children with AIDS will recover at the same rates as those who are not infected," explains Susan Thurstans, an HIV/AIDS specialist with Action Against Hunger.

Mali: Pursuing Prevention On All Fronts

In Gao, a city in Mali’s isolated northeastern region, rates of HIV/AIDS infections have doubled over the past five years. This unassuming locale has become a major stopover for people en route to Europe from Burkina Faso, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, and as a consequence, has seen increased rates of unsafe sexual practices, with HIV rates rising especially among women. Given the region’s conservative Islamic mores, treatment and prevention are difficult as AIDS is extremely taboo and stigmatizing.

Since early 2007, Action Against Hunger has worked with the people of Gao in promoting strategies for prevention as well as educational activities that engage community members and reduce the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS. The organization has worked with tribal and religious leaders, who are very influential in their communities, in developing and disseminating messages aimed at preventing the spread of the disease; with HIV-positive mothers to counter the taboos surrounding breastfeeding and dispel any fears of contagion; with prostitutes and housewives to improve awareness of various methods of prevention; and with youth to promote condom use and the practice of HIV testing. “Even though most of the participants attending our educational sessions are still men, in just one year we’ve managed to move from a half-dozen attendees to well over one hundred,” explains Ms. Thurstans. “These preventative techniques can help ensure that rates of infection begin to fall instead of continuing to climb.”

Action Against Hunger integrates strategies for the prevention of HIV/AIDS with its therapeutic nutrition programs in Mali, Malawi, Lesotho, Swaziland, Angola and Zimbabwe.