UK: Government benefits cuts leave thousands of HIV patients struggling to afford basic nutrition

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According to HIV experts, recent welfare reforms by the UK’s Coalition government have left thousands of HIV patients unable to afford the basic food they need to cope with their condition.

In an exclusive report by The Independent on Sunday, it emerged that the situation was now so critical, in some cases doctors were forced to prescribe food supplements to ensure that the patients’ medication would work.

David Asboe, chair of the British HIV Association and a consultant in HIV medicine at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, said: “Before the past three or four years, I never saw people coming in and saying they didn’t have enough money for food. Now I’ve seen several people in my clinic where the fact that they’ve had a decrease in their income, related to benefit changes, means they can’t afford regular food.

“Sometimes I have to prescribe food supplements to help them. If this is one of the unintended consequences of benefit changes, I think it’s very important that it’s looked at.”

He added that because HIV “suppresses the immune system,” nutritional problems posed a serious threat to patients who weren’t getting enough food.

“About 70 to 80 per cent of all treatments for HIV have to be taken with a meal. That’s critical to the success of these treatments, and they have to be taken regularly and on time. Taking [medication] with food optimises the absorption and has an impact on effectiveness. There’s one treatment that has to be taken with a 400-calorie meal; there is evidence that, if you take it on an empty stomach, that compromises the treatment.”

The numbers of patients saying they needed emergence grants from the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) because of benefit cuts jumped by 63 per cent between 2012 and 2013. There was also an overall 15 per cent rise in applications.

Of the 2,179 people given an emergency grant of £250 by THT last year, 919 were on benefits. Just under half of all those given help needed it specifically because they could not afford food.

Figures released in November last year by Public Health England showed HIV infections among gay and bisexual men at a record high.

Pamela Nash MP, chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on HIV and Aids, said: “These findings are truly alarming, and hopefully will send shockwaves through Whitehall. I find it deeply saddening that those with HIV in our country are not only having to deal with their condition, but now have the added burden of worrying about their finances.”

Caroline Lucas, Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, who is also a member of the HIV parliamentary group, said: “People with HIV often have to deal with a range of physical, emotional and social problems. It’s absolutely wrong that, on top of that, so many are also being forced into poverty by the coalition’s heartless austerity agenda.”

THT’s chief executive Paul Ward added: “What we’ve seen is that progressively more people have had their cases reviewed and, as a consequence, are no longer entitled to benefits at all. For many people with HIV, this isn’t a question of not having enough money to go to the cinema or buy some clothes. It means they have not got enough money to eat properly. For those who are very unwell, it means they struggle to make appointments simply because they don’t have money for the bus fare.

“The numbers in this report should act as a warning sign at all levels of government that people with HIV are not receiving the level of support needed to meet the most basic of costs. In an age when highly effective treatments mean that people with HIV can live long and healthy lives, it is nothing short of a disgrace that HIV and poverty should still so often go hand in hand.”

Earlier this month, THT said an extra 250,000 HIV tests a year could slash new infection rates.

Last month, in an exclusive interview with at a THT reception, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the time had come for the UK’s political leaders to redouble their efforts in tackling the HIV epidemic among gay and bisexual men.