updated 5/12/2004 10:59:58 AM ET 2004-05-12T14:59:58

Hunger and AIDS have trapped millions of Africans in a spiral of sickness and death, experts told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday.

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“AIDS and hunger interact,” said James Morris, executive director of the United Nations’ World Food Program. “AIDS dramatically undermines food production. Malnourished bodies are more receptive to HIV, and more receptive to the opportunistic diseases that follow.”

Based on United Nations’ estimates, the disease has killed 7 million African farmers, hindering food production throughout the continent.

The disease also makes it difficult for the victim’s family to get adequate food, often forcing the family to sell livestock or other assets to care for the sick or pay funeral expenses, said Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Better nutrition improves survival
Good nutrition should be part of the treatment, Natsios said. Anti-AIDS drugs often need to be taken with food, and the U.N. World Health Organization believes that better nutrition improves survival rates by strengthening the immune system, he said.

“Food assistance is essential if we are going to make any headway in the struggle against the virus,” said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the committee.

While applauding the United States for its donations to food programs, Morris said more steps should be taken to address the problem. Congress should consider funding a full package of assistance — food, water, medicine and shelter — and support extending school feeding programs to all schools in communities affected by the epidemic, he said.

Africa has been hard-struck by HIV. Two-thirds of the nearly 46 million people in the world who live with HIV infection live in Africa, the United Nations says.

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