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Fighting HIV/AIDS With Better Nutrition - 2003-02-27

With the lack of HIV/AIDS medications in many developing countries, UN health officials say one of the best ways to help patients is through good nutrition. That’s why the World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organization have published a new manual for people living with HIV/AIDS.

The UN agencies say there is a direct relationship between HIV infection and nutrition. They say, “By bolstering the immune system and boosting energy levels, balanced nutrition can help the body fight back against the ravages of the disease.”

Karel Callens is a nutritional expert for the FAO. He says, "One of the aspects that has been given a lot of attention is all the medical aspects and the prevention. People talk about how to prevent AIDS. But very little attention has been paid to the impact of HIV on food security, on people’s nutrition. I think that’s also valid for people who have access to medication. Because, of course, the medication requires that people are well nourished, that they have eaten actually. You cannot take this medication on an empty stomach. So providing people with access to food is important."

UN health officials say, “Almost ninety five percent of people with HIV/AIDS live in developing countries where healthcare, resources and drugs are scarce. They say, “A balanced diet is a positive way of responding to the illness.”

Mr. Callens says the new nutrition manual “offers simple and practical dietary suggestions for the estimated forty two million people living with HIV/AIDS.”

He says, "The manual is intended to make maximum use and best use of local food resources available, especially in developing countries where medication may not be readily available. This is important not only when people have clear symptoms of the disease, but also people who don’t show any symptoms can actually benefit from improved nutrition."

Health experts say, despite the fact that the disease can blunt the appetite and make eating difficult, people with HIV/AIDS should eat considerably more food. They say this not only helps fight the illness, but also makes up for weight loss. Those who are infected with the AIDS virus need more protein to rebuild muscle and also more water to prevent dehydration.

Herbs and spices are also recommended to stimulate appetite and digestion – or for medicinal use. For example, cinnamon tea can be taken for coughs and mint tea used as a gargle.

However, complicating nutrition needs are the food crises in southern and east Africa, as well as parts of West Africa. As a result, emergency food aid is needed in those areas. In the meantime, the Food and Agriculture Organization says it’s trying to work out long-term solutions for food needs. It says communal gardening and farming projects could help families affected by AIDS who are unable to grow more food on their own.