ROME, 29 November 2002 -- Eating well can help delay the progression from HIV to AIDS-related diseases. This is because good nutrition improves quality of life for people living with the disease and helps to improve the performance of the immune system -- the body's protection against infection.

But poor farmers in developing countries, lacking adequate and balanced diets, are dying of AIDS before they can pass on vital agricultural skills to their children. With better food, these parents could live a vital few years longer and have the energy to pass on their knowledge. Food consumption in Africa has been found to drop by 40 percent in households afflicted by the disease.

"Food is the first medicine for HIV/AIDS -- and often the only medicine," says Marcela Villarreal, FAO AIDS specialist. "As tragic as it is to be orphaned, it is very different being orphaned at 15 years of age than being orphaned at 7. If parents could live a few more years, they could take their children to the fields and teach them by doing."

Now, she adds, those with the virus who don't have adequate, hygienically prepared food may only live two years with full-blown AIDS. They are frequently bed-ridden and too weak to go to the fields.

A study in Kenya showed that only 7 percent of agricultural households headed by orphans had adequate knowledge of agricultural production. In a region like sub-Saharan Africa, where 11 million children are orphaned by HIV/AIDS, extending the life of a farming parent by several years could mean the difference between life and death for the children left behind.

Combine food aid with longer term measures

The message from FAO regarding food and AIDS -- on the occasion of World AIDS Day, 2 December -- comes at a time when an estimated 14 million people in southern Africa face starvation from a combination of drought, economic and civil problems and the effects of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

FAO advocates combining food aid with longer term food security measures -- for example, introducing crops that need less labour to cultivate. "Rural development, agricultural policies and food security cannot be handled independently of the HIV/AIDS epidemic," says Ms Villarreal. "HIV/AIDS must be integrated systematically into plans for responding to and preventing food crises in endemic areas. Failure to do so will put millions at risk."

Major push for low-labour farming

In Mozambique and Zambia, FAO is promoting cultivation of inexpensive, low-input, low-labour crops such as fruit and vegetables, as well as small animals and cassava, through projects worth a combined US$6.8 million. These techniques reduce the strain on households that have lost adult family members, leaving behind mainly children and the elderly.

FAO nutritionist Karel Callens, recently stationed in AIDS-ravaged northern Zambia, says the situation is so grim in that part of Africa that orphaned children were seen wandering in the streets without family or neighbours to take them in, a situation previously unheard of in rural Africa. Some of those orphans were taken in by a church-run orphanage. FAO helped the orphanage to start a vegetable garden so the children could learn how to grow food, thereby feeding themselves and earning a little money by selling produce.

How to cook for those with AIDS

Another initiative aims to help improve the nutrition of people suffering from HIV and AIDS. FAO, with the World Health Organization, will soon publish Living well with HIV/AIDS: a manual on nutritional care and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Many of the symptoms associated with AIDS -- such as diarrhoea, weight loss, sore mouth and throat, nausea and vomiting -- are manageable with appropriate nutrition. The manual provides practical advice on how to do so in poor households.

Once a largely urban problem, HIV/AIDS now afflicts rural areas as well. No longer simply a health issue, the disease is devastating societies as awhole and thus requires a broad range of policy responses. FAO promotes nutritional care for people living with the disease and works to mitigate its effects on food security, nutrition and livelihoods. FAO also helps governments and institutions develop policies to deal with the epidemic.

Katja Iversen
Information Officer, FAO
+39 06 57055521

Marcela Villarreal
AIDS Specialist, FAO
+39 06 57052346