Experts link hunger to AIDS in Africa – David Njagi

Experts have warned that poor nutrition may be a factor in accelerating the spread of HIV in Africa and could slow treatment and care for people living with AIDS.

According to Professor Onesmo Ole Moiyoi from Kenya's Aga Khan University, malnutrition leads to suppression of the immune system, which can increase the risk of catching infections including HIV.

"It is called nutritional AIDS," said Professor Moiyoi. "Where the body is weak due to prolonged hunger the immune system also weakens and is not able to fight away invasive pathogens.

"This could explain the high HIV prevalence among the struggling poor but more studies are needed to establish if there is a direct link."

Nutrition and HIV

Professor Moiyoi was speaking during the launch of a plant breeding academy at the World Agro Forestry Centre (ICRAF) in Nairobi. He also indicated that AIDS virulence can be reversed through proper nutrition.

"If you take the case of an expectant mother, there is an imprinting that takes place early in life which predisposes babies to infectious diseases," he said.

The professor said his understanding of the relationship between nutrition and AIDS has been informed by studies carried out in relation to the Dutch and Chinese famines in the 50s and 60s. These studies showed that women pregnant during that time passed on weak traits to their children.

Risk of HIV

According to the New Partnership for African Development, malnutrition is a product of food insecurity – which is about people's lack of access to sufficient nutritious food. This leads to deficiencies of micronutrients such as minerals, iron and vitamin A, and has a direct impact on the high mortality and morbidity rates among children – particularly those living with HIV.

Dr George Githuka, programme manager at Kenya National AIDS and STI Control Programme (NASCOP), said: "We cannot rule out that nutrition plays a role in the prevalence of AIDS but the main mode of infection is through body fluids."

He explained that regardless of people's access to food, the population groups most at risk of HIV include injecting drug users, sex workers and men who have sex with men and account for the highest number of new HIV infections not only in Kenya, but the rest of Africa.