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Article Released Sun-2nd-November-2008 19:21 GMT
Contact: Vivien Chiam Institution: International Development Research Centre (IDRC)
 New Insights on AIDS, Food, and Nutrition

The global food crisis is putting more people at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, argue food security experts.

By Nivedita Bhushan, International Food Policy Research Institute

The global food crisis is putting more people at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, argue food security experts.


The global food crisis threatens to undo progress made against HIV/AIDS, as vulnerable populations, facing extreme poverty and malnutrition, resort to high-risk behaviour to survive. That was one of the messages heard at the 17th annual International AIDS conference held in Mexico City, August 3–8.

“An increasing number of young women are now at risk of exposure to HIV as they engage in transactional sex to bring in food for their families,” said Stuart Gillespie, senior research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), and Director of its Regional Network on AIDS, Livelihoods and Food Security (RENEWAL). IDRC has been supporting RENEWAL since 2001.

Gillespie was one of five panelists who discussed the interaction between HIV, food security, and livelihoods. More than 25 000 researchers, activists, journalists, and policymakers gathered to discuss the major challenges facing the global response to AIDS.

Attempts to defeat the epidemic are conventionally grounded in the three core pillars of AIDS policy: prevention, treatment and care, and mitigation. All three are affected by rising food prices.


“What we are seeing is an acute crisis on top of a chronic crisis,” Gillespie noted. “Not only do hunger and HIV interact, they are entwined in a vicious cycle. Malnutrition and lack of food may heighten exposure to HIV and susceptibility to infection, while AIDS in turn exacerbates hunger.”

Gillespie believes there is an urgent need for a deeper understanding of the integral role of food and nutrition in global AIDS policy. AIDS has been a serious food security issue in Africa for years, even before the 2008 spike in world food prices.

According to the World Food Programme, 22 of 30 high-risk countries in need of external food assistance are in sub-Saharan Africa, where many countries have serious AIDS epidemics. Because HIV affects those in their prime working age, many communities have lost their breadwinners and their ability to put food on the table. This additional burden, combined with rising food prices, has induced individuals to seek money and food outside the home. Women are moving away from agriculture and entering into labour contracts where sex is often implicit, which in turn increases their vulnerability to HIV.

“This used to be called ‘survival sex,’” Gillespie commented, “but...when it doesn’t involve a condom, the risk is multiplied even further.”

“Recent studies in Botswana, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, and Zambia have shown a direct link between acute food insecurity and unprotected transactional sex,” Gillespie commented.


High food prices not only increase vulnerability to HIV but also threaten to exacerbate the many negative consequences of the epidemic. For example, when HIV comes into the household, it puts constraints on resources and forces families to sell their already scarce assets to make ends meet. The loss of healthy working adults, as well as cattle and land, has dragged the most vulnerable households further into poverty.

As the global food crisis worsens the effects of the AIDS epidemic, international aid agencies and communities are struggling to find short and long-term alleviation strategies.

Michelle Adato, senior research fellow at IFPRI, presented research at the conference on how a range of social protection interventions can respond to AIDS-affected contexts. She also reported findings on the particular effectiveness of cash transfer programs—small monthly payments made to families to help them meet their basic needs. These programs not only alleviate poverty in the immediate term but also prevent the loss of access to education, health, and nutrition among adults and children in AIDS-affected families, that may otherwise have to take children out of school and reduce food intake.


According to Adato, “cash transfers can ensure that people affected by HIV and AIDS have enough food. Good nutrition slows the progression of AIDS and improves adherence to and effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs.”

Adato believes that cash transfer programs can provide communities and families with safety nets in such times of crisis.

“It is critical,” Adato asserted, “that governments in heavily AIDS-affected countries, the international donor community, and civil society organizations come together to muster the political will to sustain and expand cash transfer programs as part of a comprehensive response to the AIDS epidemic.”

IFPRI’s RENEWAL Network receives support from Irish Aid, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC, Canada), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

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Keywords associated to this article: food, HIV/AIDS
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