Drug abuse complicates SA's Aids fight
Cape Town - The days when the president played down the danger of Aids and the health minister recommended "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. But now a new danger has cropped up: Aids medications 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 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.
Attacks by gangs
The addicts' pursuit of the antiretroviral medicine Stocrin, which is available as capsules and tablets, threatens to reduce the government's anti-Aids programme to absurdity.
About 700 000 South Africans receive the medicine, which costs between R15 and R35 per dose. Patients are afraid they could become the target of criminals. Nurses have 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 the fight over control of the whoonga market is behind to two gang wars in which 11 people have been killed.
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 in Durban, 25 patients have been robbed in recent weeks.
There are even people who have intentionally let themselves become 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 Aids drug makes it more effective in achieving a high. The Times reported it doesn't have any additional effect beyond the marijuana. However, the narcotic is described by Project Whoonga as a killer drug that is made from rat poison rather than Aids medicine.
New Aids policies
The new danger for HIV infected individuals is affecting a country that more than any other has had to wrestle with the immune deficiency disease. Nearly six million people among the South African population of 50 million are infected with HIV. Since the Zuma government decided to do an about-face in its Aids policies, there have been some changes. The director of the UNAids programme, Michel Sidibe, has praised Zuma as an "architect of a new future".
Among the positive developments 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 15m people for HIV by June 2011. The number of condoms distributed by government authorities is on the rise and is expected to climb from 450m to 1.5bn 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 trends, 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 the number of children who have been orphaned by Aids is more than one million and growing. The disease 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 further development of the country. The arrival of whoonga has made it even more difficult.