For years you couldn’t tell if someone in Burkina Faso had HIV/AIDS just by looking at them. Now it’s getting easier again because cuts in food assistance are depriving them of nutrition, AIDS advocates say.
Some 12,000 HIV/AIDS patients who rely on food aid are at risk of food insecurity and health problems this year if programmes don’t receive the required level of funding, local and international aid agencies warn.
“The situation is quite worrying because these HIV/AIDS patients need balanced nutrition to support the heavy ARVs [anti-retroviral treatment regimens] to avoid being stricken by opportunistic diseases and to ensure their survival,” said Jean Charles Die, a spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP) in the capital, Ouagadougou.
WFP has been assisting the most vulnerable HIV/AIDS patients in Burkina Faso, including 8,400 adults and 3,800 children, handing out an average of 117 tonnes of food aid each month since the scheme was created in early 2000. But now they say their funds have dried up and the usual quantity of corn, beans and cooking oil has dwindled.
Making matters worse, the transitional government, which took power following last year’s ousting of longtime president, Blaise Compaore, was forced to adopt an austerity budget earlier this year, cutting funding to government-sponsored HIV/AIDS programmes.
The WFP estimates it will need around $1.8 million to reach all 12,000 patients this year. As of April, the initiative was just 27 percent funded.
This has meant that only 3,000 people in five main cities are currently receiving food aid, down from 15 cities and surrounding villages.
“If the trend is not reversed, the lives of the infected and their children are at risk,” Die said, explaining that food aid helps lessen the burden HIV/AIDS patients often place on their families, and gives them a reliable source of nourishment, especially when they are too sick and weak to work or grow their own food.
“The consequence of this brutal end of the [food aid] programme, in the context of the inability of the government to mobilise more resources, will worsen food insecurity among an already vulnerable group,” Die said.
The effect is visible
A decrease in rations due to 50 percent funding shortfalls last year has already affected the health of many HIV/AIDS patients and their families, local advocacy groups say.
“For more than 10 years, it was difficult to tell if someone was infected [with HIV/AIDS] just by looking at them,” said Doctor Marcel Lougue, coordinator of the Support Programme for Communities Everywhere (PAMAC), created by the government to help HIV/AIDS associations generate income.
“It’s been a long time since we saw skinny HIV/AIDS infected people in our country,” he told IRIN. “But now we recognise them, and this means there is something wrong and we need to fix it.”
The funding crisis means PAMAC has had to stop enrolling new beneficiaries into its scheme and reduce the number of microloans given to existing patients to help them start earning.
Awa Darankoum was diagnosed with HIV in 2009. She used to receive a 50-kilogramme bag of rice, plus enough sorghum, cooking oil, and other food supplies each month to allow her to properly feed herself and her two children. Her husband died of AIDS six years ago and she is often physically unable to work.
"Now we just get four kilogrammes of corn, two litres of cooking oil, some enriched flour and either sorghum or beans, each month,” she said. “Every month, one of the items is taken off the list, as we are told there are fewer donors now.”
Darankoum, 42, said that when she “feels strong enough” she washes clothes and cleans houses in her neighbourhood to make ends meet, but that life if much harder without the food aid.
Local NGO Zemstaaba, which helps care for more than 375 HIV/AIDS patients in Ouagadougou and 300 children who have been orphaned because of AIDS, says 90 percent of its patients are women and 40 percent are widows.
“The situation [regarding reduced or no food aid] is even worse for them,” said Pauline Ilboudo, who runs Zemstaaba’s HIV/AIDS food aid programme. “Patients are calling every day asking for better news [about funding].”
Mamadou Sawadogo, president of the National Network of People Living with HIV/AIDS (REGIPIV), shared Ilboudo’s concerns.
“HIV [positive] women carry the biggest burden, especially in rural areas, since most of them are destitute widows who need to take care of their offspring,” he told IRIN.
Victim of its own success?
Sawadogo, who helped set up the food aid programme alongside the WFP more than a decade ago, said the initial decision to provide nutritional assistance to such a vulnerable group was aimed at avoiding a “humanitarian disaster.”
For a while it worked.
But then came a cruel irony: the country’s success in lowering the prevalence of HIV/AIDS from seven percent in 1999 to just 0.9 percent last year actually contributed to the recent funding shortfalls.
"Some donors think that the job is over in Burkina Faso, which has been able to reverse a high prevalence to almost nothing today,” Die said. “But we need to maintain the funding.”
There are still some 110,000 people living with HIV/AIDS in Burkina Faso, according to UNAIDS. Many of them rely on various organisations and government programmes for assistance, whether for medications, food, psychosocial support, loans or medical care.
Sawadogo said the country could ill afford any further cuts to any of these schemes.
"Demand is still high but [there are] fewer resources available,” he told IRIN. “The lives of the majority of patients with HIV/AIDS are at risk because they remain, more than ever, in a situation of precariousness."