EC and WFP join forces to help people
living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi"
By Richard Lee, 30 June 2004

Standing quietly in the doorway of his sister’s hut, Noel Muwononga pauses to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. But there is no real need. He already knows exactly where his sister is – lying under a rough blanket in the corner, her thin face turned towards the wall. It is where she’s been for the past six months – bedridden and chronically ill.
Setting a bowl of warm porridge down on the floor, Noel waits patiently for his sister to summon up the energy to eat. Many times in recent months he has feared that she would not survive – that she would become the twelfth of his thirteen siblings to die.

But – although his sister remains weak and sick – Noel is far less anxious now.

“She is slowly getting stronger because of this special food that she now eats three times a day,” says Noel as he watches his sister carefully swallow a spoonful of the nutritious corn-soya porridge. “She receives a food ration every month from WFP and it is definitely making a big difference to her.”

Since November 2002, WFP has been providing food assistance to thousands of poor and chronically ill people in Malawi – invariably people living with HIV/AIDS. With anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs) still widely unavailable, food remains the best line of defence.

A balanced diet helps people living with HIV to maintain strength and body weight and fight off opportunistic infections, while extra vitamins and minerals can improve the immune status of infected people.
Over 14 percent of adult Malawians are already estimated to be infected with HIV/AIDS. But the epidemic affects far more people than that – which is why WFP targets not only the chronically ill but also vulnerable households in communities ravaged by the disease.

And in particular, those caring for a large number of orphans – which is why Noel also receives a full family food aid ration from WFP every month.
“I would never be able to cope without the WFP food aid because I have no job and yet I still have to look after my own family, my sister and my orphaned relatives,” says Noel, pointing out the door at three young children clustered around the fire. “I try to cultivate my sister’s small maize plot and find casual labour. But there is no fertiliser and there is very little work around here.”

Here is Lunzu – a community on the rural outskirts of Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, where poverty is extreme, unemployment rife and the adult HIV/AIDS prevalence rate is almost double the national average.
Galvanised by the slow disintegration of their community, a small number of volunteers established a support group in Lunzu to provide advice, assistance and home-based care.
When WFP launched its operations in the area in November 2002, these volunteers played a key role in pinpointing those most in need – an extremely difficult and sensitive task given the large number of people requiring support and the serious stigma that still surrounds HIV/AIDS.

“The situation was very bad before WFP started distributing food,” says Miriam Balo, a volunteer who has been visiting the Muwononga household for over a year and a half. “The three orphans used to be very weak because they did not eat enough nutritious food.”

“But now the older two are healthy enough to go to school,” she says proudly.

In Lunzu alone, WFP provides aid to around 2,500 people in 450 households – an astonishing ten percent of the entire community.

Across the country, the number of people assisted by this specific programme amounts to more than 257,000.
“It is a large number but given the magnitude of the HIV/AIDS crisis, it is just a start,” says Gertrude Kara, WFP’s programme officer for HIV/AIDS in Malawi. “However, we are already improving the lives of thousands of people – helping chronically ill patients to grow stronger, orphans to return to school and families to cultivate their own fields rather than join the desperate search for casual labour.”

Along with assistance from the Malawian government and a range of NGO implementing partners, WFP’s programme has been successful so far because of the financial support of the international community.
The European Union, in particular, has already made its commitment clear, providing millions of Euros to WFP’s operations in Malawi – especially through its humanitarian office, ECHO. Much of this money has gone towards WFP’s HIV/AIDS activities.

In Lunzu, for example, WFP is distributing locally produced Likuni Phala as part of the food ration. Known elsewhere as corn-soya blend, the mixture is extremely nutritious and rich in micronutrients and is an absolutely crucial part of the food basket provided to people living with HIV/AIDS.
The bags of Likuni Phala – along with thousands of additional tonnes of food aid – were purchased with ECHO funds from the government’s National Food Reserve Agency. And the EU is aware that continued assistance will be required in the years ahead.

“The question of HIV/AIDS is clearly the main issue in Malawi now,” says Paul Ginies, EU food security expert in Malawi. “Villagers say that six years ago it was not really a problem – in relation to orphans for example. But that relatives and traditional village organisations can no longer cope with this problem because it is too severe.”
Given the growing orphan crisis and the increasing awareness about the links between HIV/AIDS and food security, WFP is likely to expand its HIV/AIDS activities in the coming years.

Already the agency has launched a number of pilot projects – including aid to HIV positive mothers who have enrolled in a programme run by MSF-France to help prevent mother to child transmission of the virus; assistance to patients with tuberculosis (over 70 percent of TB patients in Malawi are HIV+); and joint aid and income-generating projects.
WFP is also discussing a possible role in assisting patients who will be targeted under the government’s nationwide roll out of ARVs, which is scheduled to begin in July.

By then, Noel hopes that his sister will be back on her feet and that his orphaned nephews will be thriving at school.

“The last six months have been very hard but the situation is much better now,” says Noel, as the three children take turns trying to lift a bag of Likuni Phala emblazoned with the logos of ECHO and the NFRA.

“I really don’t want to think about what other tragedies my family would have suffered if we had not received this food aid.”

Richard Lee is a Public Information Officer for the UN World Food Programme

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