A young girl in Swaziland eats a nutritious meal provided by the World Food Programme. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger)

How Food Is Fighting HIV/AIDS in Swaziland

Swaziland has made significant progress in tackling HIV/AIDS in recent years. Still, it remains a major challenge for this southern Africa monarchy. Today, one in four adults in Swaziland is positive for HIV/AIDS.

Thousands of Swazis have lost a loved one to the virus. The disease has hollowed out families, leaving older siblings or extended family to care for the young and the sick. As a result, putting enough food on the table can be a daily struggle — both for families who have taken in orphans and for HIV/AIDS-positive parents who are managing the demands of their household as well as their illness.

Children in Swaziland eating a warm cereal that’s packed with nutrients and calories to help them grow big and strong. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger)

The combination of medicines used to treat HIV/AIDS — otherwise known as antiretroviral therapy — is most effectively absorbed by the body when a patient is consuming adequate nutrition. But, antiretrovirals tend to increase appetite and people with HIV/AIDS require more calories. That’s why the food WFP delivers to HIV/AIDS-infected people is nutrient-rich and calorically-dense which helps patients stick to their treatment regimen.

Improved nutrition has a ripple effect on entire communities. When patients eat a better diet and consistently take their medication, the likelihood of transmission decreases. They are also able to continue their education or work, ensuring their future resilience. In short, nutritious food is a critical component in the treatment of HIV/AIDS.

One healthy meal at a time, WFP is helping communities across Swaziland overcome an HIV/AIDS epidemic that is gripping the country.

During the height of Swaziland’s epidemic in 2012, the World Food Programme (WFP) began providing food to malnourished HIV/AIDS patients as well as orphans and vulnerable children who have been affected by the virus. While food alone cannot prevent the progression and spread of HIV/AIDS, the assistance is making a critical difference.

A young boy in Swaziland who receives nutritious meals from the World Food Programme. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger)

Filling A Prescription For Food

HIV — the predecessor to AIDS — is a pernicious virus that can move quickly to a person’s digestive tract, suppressing appetite and zapping energy. Often, by the time an individual is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS— particularly in poor countries — their body is depleted of the nutrients they need to fight the infection. WFP’s Food by Prescription program works to counteract this by providing food and nutrition counseling for HIV/AIDS positive individuals.

Patients are referred to the Food By Prescription program by a nurse or doctor when they have at least one of the following indicators:

  • A Body Mass Index (BMI) less than or equal to 18.5.
  • An Mid Upper Arm Circumference (MUAC) less than or equal to 9 inches.
  • Weight loss of 5 percent or more within a month.

Participants receive a warm cereal that’s packed with nutrients and calories to help them build strength and improve immunity. If a patient is malnourished, it’s likely others at home are too, so WFP also provides rations of corn, rice, beans and/or oil to take home and share with family members.

WFP plans to reach nearly 23,500 individuals positive for HIV/AIDS through its Food By Prescription program in 2016.
Left: Neighborhood Care Point (NCP) caregivers tending a community garden. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger) Right: Caregivers line up bowls of porridge for breakfast. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger)

The goal is to get people with HIV/AIDS back to a healthy weight within months of entering the program. Combined with consistent antiretroviral use people with HIV/AIDS can survive, even thrive despite their diagnosis.

Take Sabelo, a smallholder farmer from eastern Swaziland. Tending his land was part of his daily routine, but when he fell ill a few years ago, suddenly it was not.

Sabelo takes stock of his home garden in eastern Swaziland. (© WFP/Hillary Wartinger)

After tests showed that he was HIV positive, Sabelo started on treatment but he still struggled to eat enough and provide for his family. WFP’s Food by Prescription program stepped in and began providing rations for Sabelo and his family. He also received nutrition counseling which encouraged him to eat more vegetables. In fact, Sabelo enjoyed the produce so much he started growing lettuce, spinach and beetroot and has even been selling some of his harvest to neighbors for extra income.

“I want to plant tomatoes, green peppers, even mushrooms now,” Sabelo says, looking out over his vegetables. “If I wasn’t healthy, I wouldn’t be able to do that. The food, it’s what helped me.”
Two NCP caregivers with a young child in Swaziland. (© WFP/Julia Cocchia)

From Vulnerable into Vibrant

Over the last two decades, the HIV/AIDS epidemic has closed in from all sides on Swaziland’s children. It has corroded the integrity of families, ripping loved ones from their children, siblings or parents decades too soon. Today, 45% of children in Swaziland are orphaned or vulnerable and for their protection require strong health and social services.

This is where WFP comes in.

(© WFP/Theresa Piorr)

To support some of Swaziland’s youngest and most vulnerable citizens WFP provides nutritious meals to 52,000 orphans and vulnerable children under eight years of age who attend neighborhood care points (NCPs). Many of them live with relatives or in households headed by older siblings.

Children receive two meals a day, a breakfast of porridge and a midday meal of corn or rice and beans cooked with fortified vegetable oil. But that’s not all, many NCPS teach lessons, organize recreational activities, provide access to basic health services and give emotional support to children from age two until they enter primary school. As a result, high school enrollment, better access to food and regular healthcare has increased across the country.

Stopping HIV In Its Tracks

Over the next few years WFP will be working with the government of Swaziland to transition its HIV/AIDS programs to full national ownership. Collaboration between the international community, including WFP, and the government has already led to a fall of in the number of newly infected individuals, and this trend is expected to continue. Access to healthy food is just one part of this, but its value is irrefutable in helping to stop HIV/AIDS in its tracks.

Even the Nutrition Nerd says so.

— Katherine Frank, World Food Program USA

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