YANGON - Expanding its global campaign to fight the HIV/AIDS pandemic, the United Nations World Food Programme today began distributing food for the first time to families stricken with the virus in Myanmar, where infection rates are among the highest in Southeast Asia.
WFP is giving a monthly ration of 65 kilograms of rice for nine months to some 400 families in central Myanmar, a poor part of the country whose central trucking routes have abetted the spread of HIV/AIDS. The food is distributed as part of a package of "home-based" community care that is being administered by the Myanmar Nurses Association.
Some 15 percent of those receiving the rice are tuberculosis patients for whom the food serves as an incentive to continue long-term follow-up treatment.
"This one-year pilot programme is a first step in our efforts to ease the suffering of people in Myanmar living with the disease and help to slow its spread," said WFP Country Director Bhim Udas. "The food gives these poor families a better chance for survival, and serves to prevent the practices that trigger infection, like migrant or sex work." Udas noted that the programme is scheduled to expand to the Shan State in eastern Myanmar later this year.
WFP has made fighting HIV/AIDS one of its top priorities for assistance. The experience of the last 20 years of the pandemic has shown that food is the first line of defence in the fight against AIDS. Food aid keeps people with the disease healthier for longer periods of time; additionally, it helps stabilize a stricken household, keep children in school and prevent adults from engaging in high-risk practices for income.
In Myanmar, WFP plans to work within existing home-based care programmes run by national NGOs like the nurses association, which identified the 400 families in the so-called "Dry Zone" of Myanmar and started visiting them in their homes to give medical treatment and supplies along with counselling in nutrition and hygiene.
Home-based care costs a fraction of hospitalisation, which can completely drain a family's income as the household head sells off land and other assets to pay for institutional care. For people unable to afford anti-retroviral drugs, home-based care is the safety net against misery and quick death.
WFP's food component of this package has other important benefits, Udas explained: "Nutritious food can help people with HIV/AIDS stay healthier longer. They may even be able to contribute to the household income. And we have seen that a family with adequate food is less likely to pull the children out of school."
UN agencies estimate that between 300,000 and 500,000 people in Myanmar have HIV and that 2.2 percent of pregnant women are infected, more than twice the benchmark of 1 percent used by UNAIDS and the World Health Organisation to identify a generalised epidemic.
These rates put Myanmar alongside Cambodia and Thailand as countries with the highest HIV rates in the region. One reason for the spike in infection rates is Myanmar's geographic location: sharing borders with countries with high HIV levels makes the country vulnerable to cross-border infection from migrant workers.
"Through food aid, we can make a significant contribution to the complementary activities of the government, UN agencies and NGOs to help stop HIV/AIDS from devastating Myanmar," said Udas.
Mymanmar is the second country in Asia where WFP is assisting people with HIV/AIDS. A community-based care project for 4,000 households was launched in Cambodia last year.
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2003 WFP fed nearly 104 million people in 81 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.
WFP Global School Feeding Campaign -- As the largest provider of nutritious meals to poor school children, WFP has launched a global campaign aimed at ensuring the world's 300 million undernourished children are educated.
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