Partners In Health's Haitian partner organization, Zanmi Lasante (ZL) broke new ground in providing comprehensive health care for HIV patients on June 5 with the launch of a major food distribution program. Joining forces with the UN World Food Program (WFP), ZL began distributing 1,000 metric tons of food assistance to 2,575 HIV positive patients and their families.
HIV infection often makes it impossible for patients to work or grow their own food. Proper and adequate nutrition plays a critical role in patient response to treatment. Food packages are currently being distributed to HIV-positive patients based on need, using clinical and socioeconomic criteria determined by ZL staff. The food packages -- which include staples such as rice, grits, lentils, vegetable oil, meat, beans and salt -- are designed to feed a family of four.
The program reflects PIH's ongoing commitment to the importance of food and nutrition as essential components of its model for providing quality health care to the world's poor. PIH is already distributing food in Rwanda and Peru. In Rwanda, where every patient on antiretroviral therapy and TB treatment receives a monthly food package for the first year of treatment, PIH has been distributing an average of 1200 food packages a month.
PIH also pays particular attention to problems of child malnutrition. Worldwide almost 6 million children die each year as a result of hunger and malnutrition, most of them because they are too weak to fend off common, treatable diseases like diarrhea, pneumonia, measles and malaria. In Haiti, PIH's Child and Maternal Health Program provides dietary supplements including Akamil – a milled combination of nutrient-rich local foods. Children and women of child-bearing age also receive iodine supplements. Iodine deficiency is a leading cause of impaired cognition and delayed motor development in young children.
Recognizing the important role that food plays in childhood development, PIH began a school lunch program in Cange and surrounding areas this past April. The program distributes free school lunches to 21 schools, each serving between 300 and 400 students. PIH intends to strengthen this program in the fall, doubling the amount of food distributed. Increasing attention is focused on linking local agriculture projects to PIH nutritional programs. In the future, PIH hopes that the Zanmi Lasante farm will be able to supply vegetables for the school lunches and produce Akamil for the Child and Maternal Health Program.
Hunger and malnutrition are of particular concern for individuals living with HIV. HIV infection increases energy needs and affects nutrition requirements. Many HIV patients suffer from severe wasting and weakness that leaves them unable to work or to grow or purchase the food they and their families need to survive.
Hunger and malnutrition may also erode patients' ability to combat HIV, adhere to treatment regimens, regain lost weight and fight off opportunistic infections. Individuals who are malnourished when beginning antiretroviral therapy have been shown to experience a lower degree of response to treatment, slower weight gain, and greater risk of AIDS-related illnesses and infections. Nutritional interventions have a broad range of potential benefits for HIV-positive patients.
In order to document the importance of food supplements in the treatment of HIV, PIH is conducting a research study of our distribution of food to HIV patients in Haiti, with funding support from Johnson and Johnson, which is also covering some of the logistical costs for transporting, warehousing and distributing the food. The study is gathering clinical data to evaluate the health of HIV patients before and after food distribution. It is hoped that the study will strengthen the case for making food supplementation an essential component in the management of HIV in poor communities.
Preparing for food distribution at a WFP warehouse
School children line up for free lunch
[posted July 2006]