Thousands of people with HIV and AIDS are being forced further into misery in Zimbabwe, as drastic food shortages and spiralling prices make it difficult to follow antiretroviral (ARV) treatment regimes, the potent medications essential to manage HIV infection.
Five local organisations partnered by international development agency Progressio report that “scores” are having to quit or skip medication due, in part, to side effects associated with lack of nutrition and the soaring devaluation of the country’s currency, which is making poor people poorer.
“In some cases, people on ARVs are having to make a choice between taking their drugs on an empty stomach or just stopping,” said Kevin Ndemera, Progressio’s Programme Director in Harare. “ARVs are a powerful medicine which require good nutritional support. If you are without adequate food, it tends to drain you physically.”
Ndemera says he has received reports of people living with HIV suffering from sickness, dizziness and nausea – severe side effects resulting from ARV treatment that are exacerbated when the drugs are taken without food. Inadequate nutrition dangerously affects the absorption rate of the drugs, lowering the recommended drug-level in the body, and potentially allowing drug-resistant or more virulent HIV strains to emerge.
The food crisis in Zimbabwe has reached a critical level, with over four million people – approximately a third of the population - currently requiring food aid. Coupled with spiralling inflation that has seen the cost of a month’s ARV treatment hit the US$50 mark, people are struggling to get the drugs they need on an estimated average monthly wage of US 30 cents.
For the one in 10 people infected with HIV in Zimbabwe, the recent news of a cholera outbreak and an impending food catastrophe that could see 5.1 million needing food aid by early 2009, the outlook is bleak.
“People living with HIV in Zimbabwe are at added risk as food supplies run low”, said Harry Walsh, Progressio’s HIV and AIDS Coordinator. “In addition, many people debilitated by HIV, at times gravely so, are forced to seek food or work in whatever way they are able, so that they can feed themselves and their families. ARV treatment is a life-long commitment and stopping is not advisable. Due to their particular vulnerability, people on ARVs must be allowed access to food, particularly in rural areas where the situation is most desperate.”
Ndemera also points to the need for improved access to ‘treatment literacy’ amongst people living with HIV and AIDS in order to ensure they are aware of the “grave implications” of ceasing their medication.
Progressio, which has been working in Zimbabwe since 1980, currently supports thousands of HIV positive people from Harare to Mashonaland West through projects on HIV and AIDS education and care, in collaboration with its grassroots partner organisations.