Researchers at the University of California, San Francisco suggest that ensuring access to nutritious food — particularly through increased levels of participation in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government assistance program that provides low-income Americans with food aid — should be a priority in the fight against the HIV epidemic. A new UCSF study reports that the majority of HIV-positive patients experience food insecurity that leads to increased hospitalization and emergency room visits.
After studying HIV-positive patients in California, scientists concluded that adequate food is an important factor in HIV treatment, even though it hasn’t traditionally been linked to medical strategies to treat the virus. However, according to the UCSF study, HIV-positive individuals who lack secure access to nutritious food are more likely to struggle with illnesses that land them in the hospital:
The food-insecure patients were roughly twice as likely to have visited the ER or been hospitalized over a given three-month period, compared with patients who had enough to eat, the researchers found. Food insecurity was more likely than homelessness, drug abuse or depression — or just about any measurable problem associated with poverty — to lead to trips to the hospital.
Earlier studies, both in the United States and abroad, have found that food insecurity also is associated with missed doctors’ appointments, less suppression of the HIV virus and greater risk of death.
It’s not shocking that inaccessibility to food would be tied to poorer health, said Dr. Sheri Weiser, a study author. But she was surprised at how strong the correlation was between not having enough to eat and needing to use health care resources like hospitals and emergency rooms.
The researchers noted that only a fifth of the participants in their study had participated in SNAP over the past year, although a total of 72 percent had received some food aid from sources like churches, clinics, or food banks. The authors of the study believe there’s “probably room for improvement” in federal assistance programs like SNAP, either by better educating eligible Americans about the benefits available to them or by lowering the eligibility requirements so more struggling Americans can qualify.
Republican legislators may not have considered the potential implications for HIV-positive individuals when they endorsed the House GOP budget, which slashes $133 billion from the food stamp program, but a failure to ensure that low-income Americans have access to food could also be a failure to effectively combat the nation’s HIV epidemic.