BURUNDI: Food shortages could harm people on ARVs

Photo: IRIN
A balanced diet is critical to the health of people on ARVS
Bujumbura, 15 March 2007 (PlusNews) - HIV-positive Burundians on antiretroviral (ARV) medication are concerned about the future of their drug regimens after flooding caused extensive damage to harvests, bringing widespread food shortages.

In an assessment in January, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation found that heavy rains and floods had destroyed between 50 percent and 80 percent of the November 2006 harvest and much of the January yield of beans, sweet potatoes, maize, sorghum and rice across large parts of the country, forcing about a quarter of Burundi's eight million people to rely on food assistance.

ARVs slow down the reproduction rate of the HI virus and delay progression to AIDS but, in the absence of good nutrition, experts warn that taking the drugs could be just as harmful as not taking them.

Jeanne Gapiya Niyonzima, a leading HIV-positive activist in Burundi, believed the food crisis could seriously compromise people taking life-prolonging anti-AIDS medicines. "Many people taking the treatment tell us they are considering stopping it ... without food there is no use taking the drugs," Gapiya said.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 65 percent of Burundians consume less than the minimum recommended daily calorie intake of 2,100 kilocalories per person.

Donatien Bigirimana, in his thirties and unemployed since the company he worked for shut down more than a year ago, has struggled to find food to complement his ARV regimen. "People think that I will be ok if I get my daily ration of beans and rice at midday, but I need more than a child."

He experienced dizziness and a quickened pulse rate when he took the drugs on an empty stomach. "For several hours I cannot move," Bigirimana said, "but if I get something like porridge or bread it is different."

Food security for HIV-positive people was also dealt a blow in January when the WFP started implementing a new policy that left them out of its categories of vulnerable people automatically eligible for food rations. "A person suffering from HIV/AIDS is not necessarily food insecure," said Cecilia Lonnerfors, WFP information officer in Burundi.

After torrential rains in 2006 left thousands of people food insecure, the organisation prioritised its interventions to meet the needs of vulnerable people, she said. WFP now assists people taking ARVs only during the first nine months of their treatment - a period considered critical to the success of the drug regimens.

But activist Niyonzima, who has been on ARVs for several years, believes food support is important even after that period. "I have been on ARVs for many years but even now ... If I take [them] without eating, I get diarrhoea within two minutes."

WFP has also reduced the food rations distributed to all its beneficiaries by 25 percent, and HIV/AIDS organisations say this quantity of food is not sufficient for them to encourage cash-strapped patients to travel long distances to collect it.


Theme (s): Care/Treatment - PlusNews,

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