Weekly comment

Industry's role against HIV/AIDS

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Malnutrition

Following World AIDS Day, the food industry should reflect on its
own potential to advance the fight against a disease that continues
to sweep a devastating toll.

It has become clear that the medical approach is not sufficient in this battle and that HIV/AIDS and malnutrition are intersecting epidemics. The concept of 'food as medicine' ought to be common sense, but sadly, at the policy level, it has played second fiddle to pharmaceuticals. Global policy has mainly focused on getting access to anti retroviral therapy for those afflicted populations that simply cannot afford it. However, the message that these very same drugs are ineffective if not coupled with nutritional support is becoming increasingly louder. There is opportunity for ingredient companies large and small to do their bit and perhaps prevent our generation going down in history as one that watched and did nothing as the poorer half of the world sank. In a statement on the occasion of last year's World AIDS Day, the former executive director of the World Food Programme (WFP), James Morris, likened funding anti retroviral drugs without also funding food and nutrition, to paying a fortune to fix a car without paying for the petrol needed to run it. ​Likewise, the body needs nutritional fuel to mend itself. ​A study published in 2006, in the journal HIV Medicine​ (Paton, NI, et al.),​ found that malnourished patients who start new antiretroviral therapy are six times more likely to die than patients who are properly nourished. The researchers followed 394 patients at an HIV referral center in Singapore for 2.4 years. Almost unfathomable to take in, the numbers of those affected - largely in sub-Saharan Africa and India - present an enormous task for developed countries to help tackle. In 2007 - according to UNAIDS figures - roughly 33.2 million people were estimated to be living with HIV, an estimated 2.5 million people became newly infected, while approximately 2.1 million people died of AIDS. The money has been pouring in, but those working closer to the ground in affected areas say it is still not nearly enough and that the ripple effect of falling economies and lost development will be felt throughout the world for generations to come. Food and nutrition are an essential foundation towards rebuilding these areas ravaged by the disease. Speaking at the XVI International AIDS Conference in 2006, Stephen Lewis - the UN Secretary General's former special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa - said that associations working at the grassroots level with the disease continuously ask for food, but feel abandoned by institutions. He underscored that those living in impoverished areas were always hungry, but when in treatment, they need the force of nutrition more desperately than ever. The good news is that the nutritional component of the global fight against the virus is by far the cheapest - making the current shortfalls even more inexcusable. Between 3.8 and 6.4 million people have required or will require aid with nutrition over the 2006 to 2008 period, according to WFP and UNAIDS. At $1.1bn, the cost for bringing this nutritional support represents a mere two percent of the total $55bn UNAIDS estimates is needed to address the needs of the epidemic. The driving force of morality aside, for industry, there could be commercial and marketing payoffs as well in helping take on the AIDS epidemic. Nutritional ingredients firm DSM, for instance, undertakes such assistance as part of its sustainability platform - one which could boost its profile with ethically-motivated consumers. In March, the Dutch company formed an official partnership with WFP. Through its Nutrition Improvement Program (NIP), DSM provides technical and scientific support for supplementation programs, as well as for the fortification of staple foods with vitamins and minerals. For example, it devised the 'nutritious rice kernel' - through patented technology - which is a highly fortified version of a normal grain of rice. Partnerships like this one could prolong lives, keep family breadwinners alive, and thereby increase their children's chance of survival. Furthermore, companies specializing in infant nutrition could play a particularly crucial role given that HIV-infected mothers can greatly decrease the chances of transmitting the disease to their babies by not breastfeeding. By collectively chiseling away at this problem, food companies - in collaboration with organizations working on the ground - have the potential to eliminate one of the key obstacles blocking millions their right to effective treatment. Clarisse Douaud is a reporter with NutraIngredients-USA.com and has lived and worked in Canada, Ireland, Argentina and France. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to:​ clarisse.douaud '@' decisionnews.com

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