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AIDS experts say treating HIV/AIDS effectively requires more than medications such as anti-retroviral drugs; it requires good nutrition, food security and sustainable livelihoods. This is one of the topics to be discussed at the 17th International AIDS conference in Mexico City.
Stephen Lewis, the former UN special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, is now co-director of AIDS Free World, an international organization that promotes timely, effective global responses in the fight against HIV/AIDS. From Toronto, Canada, he told Voice of America reporter Cole Mallard that without good nutrition it's not possible for a person with HIV to handle the effects of anti-retroviral drugs and enhance their performance.
He says food security is an issue because "Africa is desperately short of food, the world doesn't have the food to deliver, and the ability to produce enough food is increasingly limited." He adds that most Africans earn their living through agriculture, and if one's income is threatened by sickness, drought or famine, "then you're in terrible difficulty; you simply cannot survive."
The need for a unified effort
But Lewis says agricultural productivity can be improved. "I think that Professor Jeffrey Sachs has shown that with his millennium villages, by bringing in better seeds and better fertilizer and some small irrigation; you get a tremendous increase in crop productivity when you do that." He adds that international trade agreements can help increase Africa's ability to sell its produce and revive the economy.
He says focusing on the grass roots level would enhance food availability as well, "but it requires a coordinated approach which is not in place, and I think these things always come with time, but they come late, and in the process of coming late you lose tremendous numbers of lives.
"The former UN AIDS envoy says the current rise in global food prices adds to the problem because countries that normally import food can't afford it (he says that's also true of oil prices) and agencies that deliver food to countries in crisis, like the World Food Program, are also compromised by constantly having to make additional appeals. All this, he says, comes down to the fact that "for a grandmother who's buried her own adult children and is looking after four or five grandchildren, and the food prices at the local market are so high that she can't afford to feed her kids on the weekend, and they only get one meal a day at school, it's a real crisis for the family."
Too little, too late
Lewis says he thinks the international community will eventually respond to these needs, but only after "the various streams of calamity become overwhelming. They sort of join together in one gushing river of concern...but it invariably comes so late (that) we lose so many lives - we compromise so many lives along the way - that you have to ask yourself what in God's name does it need, I mean you don't have to be some prophet - you don't have to be some soothsayer to understand that ...the ingredients are already in place for a catastrophe. So deal with it now; don't wait for 10 years; you lose too many lives."