Samraong Tong district, Kompong Speu province – Her body ravaged by AIDS and her mind heavy with worry, Sum Ra weighed a mere 28 kg in 2003.
Sum Ra lost her 3-year-old daughter to AIDS in 2001—which was how she discovered that herself and her young son were also infected.
“I felt hopeless,” Sum Ra recalled in an interview Wednesday.
But looking at her now, at a healthy weight of 56 kg, it is difficult to picture the 35-year-old as half her current size.
Sum Ra attributes her remarkable gain in weight largely to the World Food Program, which from 2004 onwards provided food aid to her via a local health clinic. But the UN agency’s food supply to the clinic dried up in December due to a lack of funds.
“I do not think [anti-retroviral] drugs will help us to live much longer if there is not enough food to eat,” Sum Ra said.
She is one of an estimated 70,000 Cambodian AIDS patients and children orphaned by the disease for whom WFP food aid had totally dried up by Feb 1 due to a lack of funding.
The UN agency appealed for $10 million in January to run its feeding programs for the next six months, but that money failed to materialize.
Until December, the WFP had supplied Sum Ra, her 11-year-old son and her 40-year-old husband Sok Ratha with 30 kg of rice, beans, fish, oil and salt every month.
It wasn’t just the food and medication that helped her put on weight, Sum Ra said. Not having to work to pay for food meant she had more time to maintain her physical and mental health with exercise, rest and time spent with her support group.
Since the loss of WFP food in December, she has been feeling weaker, and borrowing money from her sister to buy food. Sum Ra complains of swelling around her throat and says her eyesight has been worsening-possible side effects of anti-retroviral medication that proper nutrition can help mitigate, said Haidy Ear Dupuy, a communications officer at World Vision Cambodia.
World Vision distributes WFP food donations to about 3,600 AIDS patients and AIDS orphans in Kompong Speu and four other provinces.
Huon Thin, AIDS program director at Kompong Speu provincial health department, said at least 643 AIDS patients in the province have been without food previously provided by the WFP since January.
“Their illness is getting worse,” he added.
The WFP’s feeding programs had also catered to 18,000 tuberculosis patients and 650,000 school pupils across the country.
While the halt in feeding programs for schoolchildren does not pose an immediate a health risk, it has not gone unnoticed.
Sar Kim Hong, deputy chief of Damnak Ampil Health Center in Kandal province’s Ang Snuol district, said he is concerned that tuberculosis patients, who had received 60 kg of food from the WFP every three months, will stop coming in for daily medical treatment without the incentive of free WFP food.
If patients stop treatment before they are cured, they are more susceptible to other diseases such as malaria, AIDS or typhoid, he said.
Tat Moeun, director at Kandol Dom Primary School in Kompong Speu’s Chbar Mon district, said all 910 children at his school received a breakfast of rice, beans, and fish from the WFP until Jan 24.
Children are still coming to school, but some are showing up late for class without the incentive of breakfast beforehand, he added.
“Children come to class early when there is breakfast,” he said.
Children at Chambok Primary School in Samraong Tong ask every day when they will get breakfast at school again, said the school’s deputy director Ky Kuon.
“The children always ask me when they can have breakfast again, so they do not have to spend their money on food in the morning,” Ky Kuon said, adding that breakfast was last served at the school on Dec 26.
In the corner of the schoolyard is a boarded-up kitchen-financed and built by members of the community-where volunteers used to cook the WFP’s food for the children each day.
“I do not know how to help them, so I tell them to wait,” Ky Kuon said.