Malawi inmates living with HIV appeal for supplementary food

Malawian inmates living with HIV have sounded an emergency call for help, requesting authorities to supply fortified foods to improve the health of inmates living with the disease.

Malawian inmates living with HIV have sounded an emergency call for help, requesting authorities to supply fortified foods to improve the health of inmates living with the disease.

The prisoners, from Mzimba Model Prison in Malawi’s Northern Region, are on antiretroviral therapy (ART), and made the appeal when a team of journalists visited them under the National AIDS Commission (NAC) programme to find out more about HIV interventions at the prison.

One of the inmates, Vincent* from Chapangalika Village Traditional Authority (TA) Mwenewenya in Chitipa, said that much as inmates living with HIV appreciate the care they receive from the institution’s administration, they lack important supplementary food.

Prison food

“The food we get here is the usual mgaiwa [maize flour] with nyemba [beans] and khobwe [blackeyed peas] day in, day out.  Usually there is no cooking oil for the relish,” Vincent complained, adding: “With our HIV status, we need to have all the six food groups, namely proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and water at our disposal if we are to live positively and contribute to the development of the country.”

The 49-year-old, who is serving a nine-year prison sentence for incest, is expected to be released in the year 2021. He went on to say that his current health status and his jail term were in total contrast and that he was not sure if he would one day walk out of the confines of Mzimba Prison alive given the current diet.

Another inmate, 34-year-old Francis* of Mwahimba Village TA Kyungu in Karonga district, concurred with Vincent saying that diet was a major challenge to inmates living with HIV at Mzimba Model Prison.

Francis, who is on the second line of ART drugs, is glad that unlike the old phased-out drug, Stavudine (D4T), the new ones are user-friendly and have minimal side effects.  He said: “The new drugs are quite okay but the only challenge is that they make me feel very hungry.  I need additional food in between main meals to cope with the drugs.”

Special attention for positive inmates

Prison Services spokesperson Evance Phiri said that the authorities were aware of the situation in Malawi prisons and that they supply supplementary foods for inmates living with HIV.

“We provide additional food to inmates living with HIV,” said Phiri.  “If that’s the situation at Mzimba Model Prison then they may have run out of supplies and I will report this to the authorities so that we replenish them.”

On the day of the journalists’ visit there were 670 inmates with 42 male prisoners and one female prisoner on ART, while 32 others were on a waiting list to be enrolled, according to the prison’s assistant medical officer George Msumba.

Msumba said: “We make sure those inmates who are HIV positive are given special attention and that they are taking their drugs on a daily basis. We also carry out voluntary HIV testing, counselling and other HIV support and care interventions. The HIV prevalence rate is at 12 per cent among inmates and 8.3 per cent among staff.”

HIV and dietary needs

Happy*, 39, who was imprisoned seven years ago after being implicated in a stolen goods case, said that he started taking ART in 2008 but his health has been deteriorating due to poor diet.

“As you know, when you take these drugs you need to be on a balanced diet,” he said. “Unfortunately the prison cannot provide such a diet and I have recurring sicknesses due to inadequate food.”

He said that although the prison provides sugar, oil and other food items to the inmates through Global Fund grants, the supplies are not enough to last them for a month.

Access to HIV treatment

Another inmate, Ignacious*, also asked the authorities to provide special meals that are nutritious to inmates living with HIV. However, he said that they have had no problems in accessing ART since he was sentenced and all inmates always get their treatment on time.

The inmates attributed this to the effectiveness of the medical staff at the prison who ensure that they go to Mzimba District Hospital to get their ART.

George Msumba, who is also nurse in charge at Mzimba Prison, said that inmates living with HIV suffer from recurring illnesses such as coughs and skin infections due to crowded conditions in the prison.

He also confirmed that they do not get special meals at the prison because the prison relies on government funding which is used to buy food for all prisoners.

*Names have been changed