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Millions at Risk of Starvation in Southern Africa Because of HIV/AIDS, Drought, U.N. Officials Say

May 26, 2005

The combination of drought and HIV/AIDS in Southern Africa could put up to seven million people at risk of starvation over the next few months and "threaten to undermine the precious progress" made in HIV/AIDS treatment in the region, U.N. officials said on Wednesday, Toronto's Globe and Mail reports (Nolen, Globe and Mail, 5/26). World Food Programme Executive Director and the U.N. Secretary General's Special Envoy for Southern Africa James Morris, UNAIDS Executive Director Peter Piot, UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman and 10 U.N. representatives of countries in the region met on Wednesday in Johannesburg, South Africa, to discuss current HIV/AIDS programs, U.N. reforms and the need to ramp up humanitarian responses to the pandemic (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 5/25). Piot said that efforts to diversify crops and sources of income, as well as provide HIV-positive people with antiretroviral treatment, "is all is going too slow and in too small scale." About 176,000 HIV-positive people in the region are receiving antiretroviral drugs (Xinhua News Agency, 5/25).

Drought, Food Shortages
About 3.5 million people in the region currently depend on food aid, and food shortages are "undermining the success" of HIV/AIDS treatment programs, Morris said, the Globe and Mail reports. "All of this fits tightly together," he said, adding, "If you have food, you are less vulnerable to AIDS, but if you are HIV-infected, you are less productive. If you give any pharmaceutical product to a body that is not able to handle it or a body with an empty stomach, (it is less effective)." According to Morris, Malawi, Zambia, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe all have experienced severe rain shortages over the past three years. Many of those countries also have HIV/AIDS prevalence rates at or above 25% of the adult population. "There are (countries) where there has been no rain since January. There are parts of Zambia where there is no maize crop. Things are substantially worse than a year ago," Morris said, adding that drought and HIV/AIDS also are slowing progress in reducing poverty, according to the Globe and Mail (Globe and Mail, 5/26). "Emergencies come and go, but we are now in an acute phase of a chronic problem, and the effects of this are going to be with us for generations to come," Morris said, adding, "This is not about one issue or one country. Many factors are converging to undermine livelihoods of millions of people in Southern Africa" (Associated Press, 5/25).

HIV/AIDS Treatment
Many African countries are "still moving too slowly" in improving access to antiretroviral therapy, but some countries are "making progress," Piot said, according to Reuters AlertNet. Piot added that insufficient health care infrastructure and treatment programs that were launched only recently are impeding progress, but he said he is certain that the situation could improve rapidly, Reuters AlertNet reports. "Africa in general is lagging behind. But a country like Botswana is doing well in terms of HIV treatment," Piot said, adding, "We've seen good progress in countries like Swaziland and Malawi, and Uganda is doing well. Most countries have to redouble their efforts, not to meet a global target -- that's not so important -- but because the needs are there for millions of people." Piot said that implementing even small-scale treatment programs is an important step toward widening access to treatment and reducing stigma associated with the disease, Reuters AlertNet reports. "Systems are being put in place, and I'm convinced that by the end of the year there will be enormous progress," Piot said, adding, "It's a bit early to make a final judgment, but progress has been extremely good." He added that making HIV/AIDS a government priority and promoting community mobilization facilitates the introduction and scale up of treatment programs. However, obstacles still remain, particularly in countries where "already struggling" health care systems have been affected by the brain drain of doctors and nurses, Piot said, Reuters AlertNet reports. "In many sub-Saharan African countries, health services have collapsed. We are in a very absurd situation where some countries ... are providing money for AIDS programs in Africa, while on the other hand actively recruiting nurses from these same countries, making it very difficult to implement these programs," Piot said (Quinn, Reuters AlertNet, 5/25). During the meeting, Piot also criticized Matthias Rath, who advocates the use of vitamins and nutrients to treat HIV/AIDS. "Recommending vitamins as treatment for HIV is not only confusing, but is going to kill people," he said (Bell, Reuters AlertNet, 5/26).

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