The people of sub-Saharan Africa, already bearing the brunt of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, are also likely to be worst hit by the effects of climate change, but until now AIDS and climate change experts and activists have largely remained in separate camps.

Now, change might be on the way. A recent working paper published by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) seeks to bring players from the two global movements together to collaborate on research into the overlapping impacts of AIDS and climate change and eventually launch a more integrated response.

“AIDS has already killed tens of millions of people, while climate change may dwarf this number,” wrote the authors. “Those concerned to reduce climate change can apply many lessons learned by the AIDS community.”

The paper highlights how climate change is likely to raise the vulnerability of populations with already high rates of HIV, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in northeast India, the Mekong Delta region in Vietnam, and the highlands of New Guinea.

The biggest threat – already present in many parts of the world – is food insecurity caused by more intense and widespread droughts, and other extreme weather events such as flooding.

Households affected by HIV/AIDS are less able to cope with food shortages and high food prices because they may have lost breadwinners, be caring for sick adults, and children orphaned by the disease. Malnutrition can increase vulnerability to HIV infection and make it difficult for those already infected to adhere to an antiretroviral regimen or other medication for treating opportunistic infections.

The more frequent outbreaks of malaria occurring in parts of Africa as a result of changing temperature and rainfall patterns are a second potentially dangerous interaction between climate change and AIDS.

People with immune systems weakened by HIV are at greater risk of malaria and other infectious diseases sensitive to climate change, such as leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease transmitted by the bite of sand flies. The paper noted that a growing number of AIDS patients in parts of Asia, Europe and Africa are dying from this disease.

The authors also speculate that competition for increasingly scarce resources brought on by climate change, such as water and grazing, may heighten the risk of conflict and migration, and deepen gender and social inequities – all factors with the potential to fuel the spread of HIV.

Despite the lack of data on the links between AIDS and climate change, “We can definitely draw some solid conclusions,” Sari Seppänen, a UNAIDS programme officer in Kenya, told IRIN/PlusNews. “Through our joint venture we’ve understood there’s definitely enough grounds to investigate these main pathways we’ve indentified.”

Seppänen said the aim of the working paper was to generate interest among researchers willing to investigate the links between AIDS and climate change in more depth, and to foster networks in the climate change and AIDS sectors.

“The lack of global political will to deal with the unequal burden of AIDS is a reason why poor populations should fear the implications of climate change,” the authors commented.

“It is not implausible that a future world could evolve in which comparatively comfortable populations find reasons to largely ignore the chaos that could develop from climate change. An alliance between the AIDS and climate change communities is likely to reduce the risk of this scenario.”

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