Soaring food prices are beginning to affect the health of HIV-positive people in Kenya. Health workers say the situation is especially dire in the remote and chronically food insecure northern parts of the country.
"The success of ARV drugs is no more; many patients are suffering seriously," said Hadija Rama, programme manager for the Isiolo Pepo la Tumaini organisation, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that assists and monitors people with HIV. "They have developed health complications because they cannot afford basic food, leave alone a balanced diet."
According to the UNAIDS, adequate nutrition plays a crucial role in maintaining the immune systems of people living with HIV and AIDS, as well as helping to ensure that those on treatment get the maximum benefits from antiretroviral (ARV) treatment.
The latest humanitarian food update by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Kenya could expect a food deficit as a result of global food shortages, increased food prices and reduced production, compounded by poor rains and the displacement of people during the post-election violence that rocked the country in December 2007.
Rama said families had been forced to increase spending on food to ensure their HIV-positive family members had a balanced diet, at the expense of other essential requirements like their children's education. In Isiolo district, about 250km north of the capital, Nairobi, some of the poorer HIV/AIDS patients had begun rejecting free life-prolonging ARV medication because of the side effects of taking the drugs on an empty stomach.
Asha Abdiwelli, of the Garissa HIV/AIDS Support Programme in northeastern Kenya, said the number of people seeking assistance from her organisation had increased over the past few months. "We are receiving many [HIV-positive] people seeking food assistance," she told IRIN/PlusNews. "Many were in a position to feed themselves before but it is impossible now."
Mary is afraid her chances of living much longer are being compromised by the food shortages. "I have developed many health problems in the past three months. I had malaria, pneumonia and now I have TB [tuberculosis]; I can no longer wash people's clothes to feed my three children," said the mother of three who tested HIV-positive three years ago.
"The government should know that we are suffering because we cannot afford food ... they should either give us food or stop giving us the drugs - it is killing many people."
Mohamed Ahmed, of the Nomadic Pastoralists Programme, said the high food prices were also affecting HIV prevention efforts, because girls and women were being forced into commercial sex work to feed themselves and their families.
"Food insecurity has been one of the major factors responsible for HIV/AIDS cases in northern Kenya," he said. "It is worse now, and we fear that many girls and women will fall victim to the virus now."
The Kenyan government and NGOs are working to prevent continued food shortages, but are coming under pressure as a result of the high food prices. The UN World Food Programme (WFP) supports an estimated 64,000 people infected and affected by HIV across Kenya.
"WFP tries to buy locally where it can, and we are buying some food in Kenya, but recently we have had to import maize from South Africa due to availability and cost," Gabrielle Menezes, the WFP public information officer in Kenya, told IRIN/PlusNews.
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