How high food prices increase the risk of HIV

The people most hit by the recent worldwide increases in food prices – resulting from, among other things, the price of oil, speculation on the financial markets, erratic weather patterns, subsidised production of biofuels, and population growth -- are the rural and urban poor who now have to spend a proportionately higher percentage of their meagre income on food.
Relief Food: People infected with the HIV virus need more food to acquire energy (Net photo).
Relief Food: People infected with the HIV virus need more food to acquire energy (Net photo).

The people most hit by the recent worldwide increases in food prices – resulting from, among other things, the price of oil, speculation on the financial markets, erratic weather patterns, subsidised production of biofuels, and population growth -- are the rural and urban poor who now have to spend a proportionately higher percentage of their meagre income on food.

In the face of these price hikes, households and communities have to adopt coping strategies to enable them to survive.

Some of these coping strategies include: change in diet such as reduced food intake, lower food quality and reduced dietary diversity; seeking wage employment; temporary or in the worst case permanent migration; sale of productive and non-productive assets; and withdrawal of children from school.

While it is probably true that HIV occurs primarily among the poor, it is also possible that poverty plays a big role in the spread of the epidemic.

Poor households affected by HIV are characterised by food insecurity and poor standards of living. Already faced with multiple social and economic shocks, the additional stress of high food prices renders it impossible for these households to cope with the threat of HIV.

A key explanation for the big impact of price hikes on HIV lies in the fundamental role that food plays in the survival of HIV patients.

Nutrition is important for of the following reasons: Firstly the infection-illness period, which on average is about eight years, can be extended by a good diet, among other things.

People infected by the virus have up to 50 per cent more energy requirements (100 per cent for children) than people who are not infected.

Secondly good nutrition both in quality and quantity is vital in the prevention of opportunistic infections which occur because of reduced body immunity. A sound diet may therefore prolong life; more especially delay the progression of HIV to AIDS.

Thirdly adequate nutrition is of utmost importance to the patients on anti-retroviral therapy. Some drugs must be taken with food and most are not effective if the patients are malnourished.

Given the dominant importance of nutrition in the life of HIV patients, high food prices constrain the ability of affected households to access good nutrition. This occurs largely because purchasing power as well as disposable income is reduced.

The poor, in their attempt to cope with the rising food prices, reduce their dietary intake both in quality and quantity -- a hindrance to effective treatment of the disease and prolongation of life.

Similarly, in response to the increased household expenses due to rising food prices, people tend to migrate in search of food and work. Migration is often from the rural to the urban areas.

In urban areas the immigrants may engage in commercial sex or have multiple sex partners thus increasing the risk of infection.

In Africa, the highest prevalence has been recorded at trading centres, border posts and at major transport routes.

Some households cope with food insecurity caused by rising food prices by withdrawing children from school either to reallocate resources to food purchases or so that the children may work for food or cash.

Out-of-school children are exposed to the risk of HIV infection and are denied the much-needed education that would create awareness to prevent infection.

The price hikes and consequent food insecurity not only affect people’s standards of living but also expose them to higher risk of HIV infection and AIDS.

A common trend among price hikes, food insecurity and HIV/AIDS is that they are all an echo of what has been -- and somewhat of a prediction of what is to come.

What is important now is to draw lessons from the past and make decisions in the present that will influence a better future.

A feasible all-encompassing resolution that is already active in many countries is to create or strengthen synergies between the different sectors of the economy.

Synergies between sectors such as agriculture, health, education, social welfare, finance, gender, local government, civil society, NGOs and communities will improve support systems, promote education and HIV sensitisation, build household resilience to shocks, promote livelihoods, and mitigate coping strategies that push HIV infection or deter HIV treatment.

Peace Nganwa is a Master’s student in agricultural economics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, which houses the African Centre for Food Security, the lead pillar institution for CAADP Pillar 3 on food security and hunger. She is an intern at the centre.

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