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Drug abuse complicates South Africa's Aids battle

Staff Reporter

Despite growing efforts from the government to curb HIV-infections, antiretrovirals are suddenly sought-after as a recreational drug, whoonga.

The days of South Africa’s president playing down the danger of Aids and the health minister recommending garlic, beetroot and vitamins as medicine to fight it, are over.

President Jacob Zuma has attached a high priority to the fight against HIV, the Aids-causing virus that infects one in nearly eight people in South Africa. Initial success from an educational campaign, the distribution of condoms and medicine is recognisable.

Now a new danger has cropped up: Aids medication are suddenly sought-after as a recreational drug.

Whoonga is the name of the mixture of antiretroviral medicines with marijuana. The new narcotic has spread within the past year, especially in the province of KwaZulu-Natal. It now can be found throughout the country.

“The number of addicts is in the hundreds of thousands, but unfortunately, the government isn’t taking the problem seriously enough,” said Thokozani Sokhulu, founder of Project Whoonga.

The addicts’ pursuit of the antiretroviral medicine, Stocrin, which is available as capsules and tablets, threatens to reduce the government’s HIV-programme to absurdity. About 700 000 South Africans receive the medicine, which costs between R15 and R35 per dose. Patients are afraid they may become the target of criminals. Nurses have also been caught stealing the pills, according to a report in the Sunday Times.

Police departments are concerned that gangs will organise attacks on vehicles transporting the medicine or on clinics where it is stored. In Durban, security officials believe that two gangs are fighting for control of the whoonga market to two gang wars in which 11 people have been killed.

Police are aware of the problem
Police spokesperson Vish Naidoo has stressed that police are aware of the problem and have it under control but Aids organisations have reported on hundreds of assaults in recent months. In Umlazi township in Durban, 25 patients were robbed in recent weeks.

It is alleged that people have intentionally let themselves be infected with HIV so that they can get the drug. Vincent Mdunge, a provincial police spokesperson, admitted in the Sunday Times that the problem is much worse than the police believed.

The absurdity of whoonga is that some experts doubt the antiretroviral makes it more effective in achieving a high. The Times reported it doesn’t have any additional effect beyond the marijuana.

Nearly 6-million people among the South African population of 50-million are infected with HIV.

Among the positive developments in the government’s Aids programme is a more than 25% decline in the number of new infections since 2001. A campaign that began in January has the goal of testing 15-million people for HIV by June 2011. The number of condoms distributed by government authorities is on the rise and is expected to climb from 450-million to 1,5-billion per year. The authorities also are touting circumcision, which considerably reduces the spread of the virus, and offering the procedure free of charge.

The number of infected people who receive medicine has increased substantially, but the government still considers the number far too low. Nevertheless, it is considerably higher than in previous years.

Despite the trend, Aids remains a formidable problem in South Africa. About 1 000 people die from Aids every day, nearly every third pregnant woman is infected and more than 1-million children have been orphaned by Aids. The syndrome has caused a clear drop in life expectancy in the country.

The government has stressed that the fight against Aids is an important challenge in the development of the country but the arrival of whoonga has made it even more difficult.—Sapa-dpa

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