February 27, 2017

Food Security: The link between HIV and Climate Change

Written by Hunter Isgrig, Crowd360 Digital Campaign Producer

Over the past several months, climate change and HIV have been two topics Crowd 360 explored through either Live Coverage or Conversations. These topics have also been discussed concurrently in the initial days of the new United States administration. The level of partisanship differs between climate change and HIV when it comes to prioritizing U.S. investments, but there may be a separate, yet confounding relationship between the two worth discussing.

Woman standing in field

Photo: Pablo Tosco / Oxfam (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Over the past several months, climate change and HIV have been two topics Crowd 360 explored through either Live Coverage or Conversations. These topics have also been discussed concurrently in the initial days of the new United States administration. The level of partisanship differs between climate change and HIV when it comes to prioritizing U.S. investments, but there may be a separate, yet confounding relationship between the two worth discussing.

In December of 2016, Crowd 360 ended its nine-month digital campaign, #EndHIV4Her, focused on conversations around HIV and AIDS as it relates to women and girls. #EndHIV4Her amplified meaningful discussions that addressed not only the prevention of HIV but also the treatment of the 34 million people around the world who are currently infected. These discussions were captured at international conferences such as the 21st International Aids Conference in Durban, South Africa where the latest science and innovations were presented and celebrated. Throughout the nine-month campaign, we captured the highlights and delivered them to over 14 million people around the world, bringing more people to the table to discuss the need for further scientific advancement in the treatment and prevention of HIV and AIDS.

This January, the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), released its Thirteenth Annual Report to Congress celebrating positive impact from their recent Public Health Impact Assessment. This assessment concluded that sample PEPFAR programs in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe had reduced HIV infections by 51-75%. These results indicate that the U.S. investment is impactful, effective and required for continued success in combatting the HIV and AIDS epidemic.  PEPFAR was an initiative led by the Bush administration as a bipartisan approach towards addressing the growing HIV epidemic at the time. It has since received continued support with significant majorities across aisles from the administrations that have followed and is hailed as one of the greatest humanitarian assistance effort by the United States. Vice President Mike Pence has taken the public stage in reaffirming the new administration’s position on PEPFAR, recognizing its’ importance and impact.

Pivoting to climate change, in January, Crowd 360 authored a blog summarizing COP22, an international conference convening delegates from over 200 countries around the world to discuss and showcase the progress made since the 2015 Paris Agreement. The collective commitment in the Paris Agreement was to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by 2100. This commitment means multi-billion dollar investments from countries like China and the U.S. who are some of the largest producers of toxic greenhouse gas emissions, which are the primary culprit for global temperature increases. From COP22, Crowd 360 gathered that the resounding message was that while there have been significant efforts addressing the Paris Agreement, there is a demand for increased funding for climate change abatement projects to meet the goal of the agreement. These lessons learned and recommendations out of COP22, in addition to the U.S. commitment to the Paris Agreement may now be in jeopardy with the new administration.

The interrelations between climate change and HIV were explicitly outlined in our conversation with FHI 360’s Director of Program Sciences and Technical Support, Dr. Bazghina-werq Semo Dessalegn, an expert on HIV. Dr. Dessalegn outlined the most direct connection between HIV and climate change is food security. Without access to food, people living with HIV are at higher risk for malnutrition which can impact their overall health and immune system. Food insecurity can also inhibit the bodily uptake of and adherence to the Antiretroviral Therapy (ART) drugs they may be prescribed to treat their condition. Dr. Dessalegn also mentioned that areas impacted by severe climate change-inflicted conditions, such as droughts, also tend to be areas with high rates of HIV prevalence. An unfortunate example of this is Lesotho.

Man preparing food

Photo: Jessica Scranton/FHI 360

FHI 360 is currently implementing the PEPFAR funded USAID “Livelihoods and Food Security Technical Assistance II” (LIFT II) project throughout several central and southern African countries. Lesotho is one of these countries. LIFT II’s primary goal is to build the continuum of care for people living with HIV and other vulnerable households by increasing their access to high quality, context appropriate, market-led economic strengthening, livelihood and food security opportunities to improve their economic resilience and lead to better health. Unfortunately, in 2015, Lesotho faced one of the worst droughts recorded in its’ history – leaving thousands of people struggling to cultivate their own food. Simultaneously, Lesotho faces the burden of having one of the highest rates of HIV (22-23%) across all of central and southern Africa. In an assessment conducted by the LIFT II project in 2016, it was found that, within a sample of the population the project works with, 55% of households grow their own food. This statistic does not speak for all of Lesotho but can give an idea as to how reliant this population may be on home-grown resources. Now, as Dr. Dessalegn mentioned, food insecurity can disrupt a healthy immune system, making populations more susceptible to HIV. So having both severe droughts and high rates of HIV, makes combatting the HIV epidemic significantly more challenging.

A larger push for generating evidence and better understanding the relationship between climate change and HIV is warranted. Climate change and HIV may appear to be two topics without much relation, but as we saw in Lesotho, the link could reveal a deeper connection that, if addressed, could result in more efficient programs addressing the issue and producing better health outcomes for communities combatting the epidemic.

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