Safer food for those with HIV

World Aids Day 2018

By Bridget Day on 01 December 2017

The Department of Health offers the following food-safety guidelines for people with compromised immune systems.


Germs & Food Poisoning

Even healthy people sometimes experience diarrhoea, nausea, upset stomach, cramps and vomiting, not knowing what caused it.  It is therefore difficult to tell of food is spoiled simply by its appearance, taste or smell.  Food poisoning can range from mild to severe episodes and in some cases, it can even cause death.

A healthy body is equipped to handle many germs, but when the immune system is weakened the body becomes less able to fight off germs.  People with HIV and AIDS are this more vulnerable to germs and they have to be very careful with food.  Any illness, including those cased by food, could further weaken the immune system

Germs commonly found in food

  • Campylobacter
  • Listeria
  • Salmonella

Personal hygiene around food

  • Always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water (preferably warm water) before touching your food. Do this every time between touching raw and cooked food.
  • It is very important to wash your hands after touching pets and other animals, after visits to the toilet and after sneezing or blowing your nose.
  • Cover all wounds to prevent contamination of food during preparation and handling. If you have cuts or sores on your hands, they must be covered when working with food. The use of elastic plasters may keep the wound clean, but they can become dirty and contaminate the food.  Rubber gloves will keep the wound clean and protect the food.

Clean and safe water

  • In South Africa it is generally safe to drink water from a tap. If you get your water from a river or well, drink the water only after boiling it.
  • Use the bleach method to make the water safe when it is not possible to boil the water. Add one teaspoon (5ml or one capful if the bottle has a screw cap) of bleach to 25 litres of water. Mix it well and let it stand for two hours (or preferably overnight) before using it.
  • Store clean and safe water in a clean container with a lid or covered with a cloth.
  • Cool drinks and ice cubes should also be made with water that is clean and safe.

Safe food shopping

  • It is safer to buy food in amounts that can be eaten before they spoil. It is sometimes cheaper to buy food in bulk, but without a fridge for safe storage this is not useful. For example, any meat not used within two days should be frozen.
  • Do not use canned food if the can bulges or if it is dented or leaking. Do not be tempted by discounts on damaged cans.
  • When buying cold meats and cheese, pre-packed and sealed products are safer. Cold meats that have been in the display case for some time are not safe.
  • Do not buy cracked eggs. It is wise to inspect the eggs in the shop before they are bought.
  • Many foods now have “Sell by”, “Best before” and “Use by” dates. Read the labels. It is not safe to buy foods after their “Sell by” date. Do not be tempted to do so even if the price is marked down. Check the food in your kitchen and throw away any food that has reached the “Best before” or “Use by” date, even if it still looks good. Do not taste food that you think might be spoiled. You might not have been sick from these things in the past, but remember that things are different with HIV and AIDS. 

Keep a safe kitchen

  • Wash all work surfaces (table tops, counters, sinks, shelves etc.) with soap and water. Do not give germs a chance to grow. clean up immediately after spills
  • Wash kitchen floors at least once a week. If your kitchen floor is used often, the floors will need to be washed more often. Use separate cloths for the floor.
  • Keep rubbish in a covered bin. Empty and wash the bin regularly.
  • Disinfect cloths, sponges and scourers with bleach. Sunlight is n effective way to kill germs naturally.  It is a good idea to dry your cloths in the sun.
  • Use kitchen cloths in the kitchen only. Use separate cloths and cleaning materials for your bathroom.
  • Keep your kitchen well ventilated. This helps prevent the growth of mould and fungus.

Safe dishes and kitchen utensils

  • Preferably wash your dishes in hot soapy water. Remember that it is the heat of the water, and not the soap, which is more important for hygiene. If the water gets too dirty, replace it and continue your washing. If you have enough water, it is also a good idea to rinse the dishes with clean water after washing. Germs left on the plate may make you sick next time you use your plate.
  • Cracks in cups and scratches in plastic containers are ideal hiding places for germs, and it is difficult to clean properly. Replace cracked crockery and old plastic containers for your own safety.
  • Use cutting board for raw foods. The kitchen sink is not the place for this. If possible, use one cutting board for meat, chicken and fish, and another for raw vegetables and bread.
  • If this is not possible, clean the board well with soap and hot water after each type of food. Cutting boards made of plastic or marble, and not wood, are the safest for raw meat products. Replace your plastic cutting board when it becomes scratched and is difficult to clean.

Safe foods

  • If you are not sure where food comes from or how it has been prepared, it is safer not to eat it. If you have any doubt, do not eat it.
  • Make sure the food is kept away from pets and other animals.
  • Always keep food well covered to prevent flies and other insects from reaching it.

Fruits and vegetables

  • Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables. If it is not possible to wash them properly, peel your fruits and vegetables. A mixture of one teaspoon of bleach added to one litre of clean water can be used to wash fruits and vegetables.
  • Throw away any fruits or vegetables that are mouldy or rotten.

Milk and dairy products

  • Use only pasteurised milk. Pasteurisation is a process whereby milk is heated to a very high temperature, which destroys harmful germs. Look for the word “PASTEURISED” on the label. It might not be safe to drink home-produced milk. Home-produced milk should be boiled before use.
  • Throw away mouldy cheese. Cutting off the mouldy part of the cheese is not good enough. Avoid blue-veined cheese and soft cheese which contain live moulds. This is not considered safe for people with HIV/Aids.


  • Do not eat raw meat, poultry and fish, not even in small amounts.
  • Cook meat thoroughly until it is cooked right through. If it is still pink inside, it is not safe for you. When eating in a restaurant, order your meat well done 


  • Do not eat raw eggs. Always cook eggs until the white is cooked and the yolk (the yellow section) is firm.
  • It is not safe to add raw eggs to milk shakes.
  • Do not use cracked eggs. The cracks allow germs to enter.
  • Wash the eggs before breaking them.

Keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot

  • Keep frozen foods frozen.
  • Hurry home with frozen food. Food warms up and defrosts in warm vehicles. This allows germs to grow before you get home to re-freeze the food.
  • Plan your shopping and pick up frozen foods last. If you know you are going to be long, pack the frozen food in a cooler bag.
  • Foods frozen at home can only be kept safely for 30 days in the freezer compartment of a fridge. Germs can grow even in the freezer.
  • Once frozen food has been defrosted, it should be used as soon as possible. It is not safe to freeze the defrosted food again.
  • It is not safe to defrost frozen meat at room temperature. Room temperature gives germs the chance to grow and they may make you sick. Defrost frozen meat or other frozen foods in a fridge if you have one. Microwave ovens are also good for defrosting frozen food quickly.
  • If you do not have a fridge, keep the food in a cool place away from the sun while it is defrosting.
  • Once food has been cooked it should be eaten as soon as possible. It is not safe to store foods that have cooled down at room temperature.
  • Any leftovers should be stored in a fridge if possible. Warm foods should be allowed to cool down before putting it in a fridge. Food should not be left out for any longer than 2 hours. Use airtight containers or cling wrap to protect foods in storage. If you do not have a fridge, keep the food covered and in a cool place.
  • Do not keep food at room temperature for more than two hours. Be careful about eating cold, cooked food that has been kept at room temperature for longer than this. This often happens at parties and large functions such as weddings. Many healthy people have suffered stomach upsets after such events. When you are infected with HIV you need to be extra careful.
  • When you eat leftovers of cooked food, you should reheat them to a high temperature to make sure that you kill all germs first. It is not safe to simply warm the food up.

Take extra care when travelling

 Food safety standards are not the same everywhere. When people travel, they come into contact with new germs that their bodies are not used to. Our immune systems are not prepared for this and it can be a problem even for healthy people.

Diarrhoea is a common consequence. When the immune system is weakened by HIV/Aids, it is easier to get sick from food and water that does not cause problems in uninfected people. Extra precautions should be taken when travelling. It is advisable to drink water only after boiling. Alternatively, only bottled and canned drinks or water should be drunk.

Do not use ice in drinks, the water used for this could be unsafe. Street foods which are not properly heated or cooked could also be a source of food poisoning.


Source: The Department of Health