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Twelve years have passed since doctors told Monica Julio that she had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The mother-of-six is now a busy and valuable member of her community in South Sudan, and she attributes this to food assistance provided by the World Food Programme (WFP), which allowed her to stick to her treatment and inspire others to do the same.
WAU - Sitting in the shade of a mango tree in her yard in Wau, the capital of South Sudan's Western Bahr el Ghazal state, Monica Julio remembers how weak and frail she felt when she started anti-retroviral treatment (ART).
People living with HIV have weakened immune systems and increased nutritional needs. Because of this, they may not be able to sustain their strength during ART if they do not eat well. Luckily, Julio received food assistance from WFP to keep her healthy as she battled the virus.
"If it was not for WFP food, we would not have stuck to the treatment plan and medication, and been healthy enough to speak openly about HIV/AIDS," said Julio, who is separated from her husband.
"You see a big difference in people before and after they start receiving WFP support. People become strong and gain weight … Now I weigh 80.6 kilogrammes. We only have words of thanks to WFP as the number of deaths among our group is now less than before," she added.
In South Sudan, HIV is a contributing factor in chronic illnesses amongst communities with little knowledge of prevention and limited access to testing and treatment. WFP provides food and nutrition assistance to food-insecure, HIV-affected households, providing a safety net for people who might otherwise be unable to meet their immediate food needs.
Close to 25,000 people living with HIV/AIDS, and their families, have received monthly rations of cereals, pulses, specialised nutritious food (super cereal), vegetable oil, sugar and salt from WFP in South Sudan this year.
"Food and nutrition support is an essential part of any comprehensive HIV treatment and care package. Our assistance to persons living with HIV helps lessen the burden of the disease on poor and vulnerable communities in this country," said Eddie Rowe, WFP's Deputy Country Director for South Sudan.
In addition to distributing food assistance, WFP works with its partners - including several associations of people living with HIV across South Sudan - to facilitate workshops that offer information on food and nutrition, basic facts about living with HIV as well as advice on tackling discrimination and stigma associated with HIV/AIDS.
If people living with HIV are well nourished and look healthy, rather than emaciated, this can help to combat stereotypes, and may even encourage other people living with the disease to seek treatment.
"More people are now going to centres, which offer voluntary testing and counselling because of our activities," said Julio, who is a founding member of an association of persons living with HIV/AIDS in Wau.
Her group carries out awareness campaigns, group counselling sessions and home care visits for the sick and their families. The members have also organized income-generating activities, such as making traditional handicrafts or farming small plots, to be able to guarantee their own supply of food.
Julio, who works as a messenger in the State Ministry of Finance, supplements her small salary by selling embroidered materials, and through farming. Thanks to WFP's food assistance, she was healthy and strong enough to branch out into these activities.
"With my improved health, I was able to cultivate a small farm from which I got nine bags of groundnuts last year," Julio said. She also displayed an embroidered lavender tablecloth, which she planned to sell.
According to the Joint UN Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS), an estimated 150,000 people were living with HIV in South Sudan in 2012. However, infection rates could actually be higher as no population-wide HIV survey has been carried out in the country.
Story by: James Onesimo and George Fominyen, WFP South Sudan