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        Asmara High Rise Project 26-30 June, 2004
 Intercontinental Hotel, Asmara, Eritrea

HIV activist takes diet message to Eritrea

June 11 2004

By Sophie Mongalvy

Asmara - David Patient, who has lived with the virus that causes Aids for more than 20 years and almost entirely without antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), gives new meaning to the term "HIV positive".

This tanned, 43-year-old, self-confident South African, who is something of a celebrity in his own country, travels the African continent with his partner Neil Orr to explain how he has managed to outlive almost everyone else in the world infected with the human immunodeficiency virus.

Patient has been HIV positive for 21 years.

Now he is taking his message to Eritrea, a small country in the Horn of Africa.

"You are what you eat," could well be his motto.

Except for an unpleasant period as a early AZT guinea pig in 1986, Patient's diet has not included the ARVs generally touted as the only way of delaying the onset of full-blown Aids.

"I took them for about six months, then I dropped off because I was just feeling so ill. I couldn't work, I couldn't do anything, I was losing weight, I wasn't sleeping properly I had constant diarrhoea," he recalls.

"Since then, I haven't touched anything."

But Patient is quick to reveal he does not share the blinkered radicalism of his country's president, Thabo Mbeki, who for years questioned the link between HIV and Aids and seemed to regard ARVs as a kind of malign form of Western pharmaceutical neo-colonialism.

"I am not anti-antiretroviral drugs," Patient said during his six-day workshop in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

"At the end of the day, when I'll need the drugs, I'll go on them. It's just that I don't need them," he said.

HIV treatment has changed dramatically since the early AZT trials. Prescribed dosages have been reduced dramatically and several drugs are now used in combination.

"I think everybody should have access to them and I am all for it, but it must be put into a context of nutritional security, there needs to be medical back-up, there needs to be a whole bunch of resources that need to be made available. And in many of our African countries, we simply don't have it," he explained.

Unlike in developed countries, only a fraction of the 26,6 million people estimated to be infected with HIV in Africa have access to antiretroviral treatment.

Patient believes not enough attention has been paid to the eight-year gap between infection and sickness, and that this period can be extended to 12 years with the right nutrition.

"So many of the resources are already here. Even in a country as barren as Eritrea, in a drought situation, there is plenty of food that if people started eating the things that their grandparents started to eat. Yes, they could survive," he told the workshop.

"Teach yourself how to eat correctly, teach yourself how to grow the food," he urged as he handed around pamphlets entitled A Healthy Body: The Right Food which details the nutritional content of African staples such as maize, tapioca, spinach, peas, bananas, and nuts.

"Read this for tomorrow, then we will do some practical gardening work," Patient told the workshop, whose participants were invited by the health ministry and the United Nations's children's agency, Unicef.

The HIV prevalence rate in Eritrea was 2,8 percent at the end of 2001, according to UNAids, one of the lowest in Africa, for now.

"Eritrea could face a rapid expansion of HIV/Aids in the next few years," the United States Agency for International Development warned in a 2003 report.

"Reasons for concern include the planned demobilisation of almost 200 000 soldiers and an eventual reopening of borders that were closed during the 1998 to 2000 war with neighbouring Ethiopia, which has the third-largest number of persons living with HIV/Aids in the world," the report added.

Later this year, Patient will travel to India and Malaysia. - Sapa-AFP