DAKAR (Reuters) - A persisting food crisis and rising HIV/AIDS infection rates in Africa form a deadly partnership that is destroying livelihoods and undermining economies in the world’s poorest continent, U.N. experts said Friday.
This combination could be accentuated by the global economic crisis, which may reduce donor aid for better nutrition and health care, pushing millions more Africans into a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty, disease and death.
“The (rise in) food prices at the beginning of the year and now the economic crisis, this is enormous ... the urgency to act now is so much bigger,” Martin Bloem, the U.N. World Food Program (WFP)’s Nutrition and HIV/AIDS Policy chief, said.
He and WFP Deputy Executive Director Sheila Sisulu said the double impact of increased malnutrition and diseases like HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis were all the more devastating in Africa, where poverty and food insecurity were widespread and AIDS was the largest single cause of premature death.
“What is coming down the pipe in terms of the financial crisis cannot be underestimated,” Sisulu said, speaking on the sidelines of an AIDS conference in Dakar, Senegal.
Poor rural and urban African families who were not getting enough nutrition in their diets, because of conflict disrupting their lives, natural disasters or high prices putting food beyond their budgets, were seeing their immune systems weaken.
This made them more vulnerable to HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. The deaths from disease of family bread-winners or members of collective workforces were draining the economic lifeblood from individual households and whole economies, Bloem said.
He cited recent statistics showing “war-like” death rates among women aged between 15 and 45 years in South Africa, the regional economic powerhouse, which showed the need for integrated donor-backed health and nutrition strategies.
“You cannot disconnect what we are doing from the economy,” Bloem said. He and Sisulu added WFP’s voice to that of other humanitarian agencies which are pleading with governments of the world’s rich, developed states not to cut international aid allocations because of the global credit crunch.
U.N. agencies say that although international food prices have fallen sharply from highs reached earlier in the year, they are still well above the levels of two years ago and have driven millions more people into poverty who now require help.
“The number of people dependent on external resources will increase over the next few years, the economic crisis will diminish the amount of money that we will get, how can we cope with these incredible needs?” asked Bloem.
Sisulu said those countries which were hit at the same time by food insecurity, high levels of HIV/AIDS infection and situations of failing governance risked becoming flashpoints of social upheaval and humanitarian crisis.
She said this could be the case of Zimbabwe, where the embattled government of President Robert Mugabe, whom critics accuse of clinging to power, has appealed for world help to tackle chronic food shortages and a cholera epidemic.
“There you have a recipe for this kind of implosion, explosion or whatever you want to call it,” she said.
Bloem and Sisulu said initiatives to tackle Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic should not just focus on medical treatment alone but should also look to improve the already deficient nutritional intake of most poor African families.
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