The days when South Africa’s president played down the danger of Aids and the health minister recommended “garlic, beetroot and vitamins” as medicine to fight the syndrome are over.
President Jacob Zuma has prioritised the fight against HIV, the Aids-causing virus that infects one in nearly eight people in South Africa.
Initial success from an educational campaign, and the distribution of condoms and medicine is recognisable. But now a new danger has cropped up: Aids medication is 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 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 for control of the whoonga market is evidenced by two gang wars in which 11 people have been killed.
South African police spokesman Vish Naidoo has stressed that police are aware of the problem and that they have it under control. But Aids organisations have reported on hundreds of assaults in recent months. In Umlazi township, 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 spokesman, admitted in the Sunday Times that the problem was 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 did not 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.
Nearly 6 million of South Africa’s 50 million people 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 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 are also touting circumcision, which considerably reduces the spread of the virus, and are 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 1 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.