Article: How a Street Drug Affects South Africa‘s Fight Against HIV/AIDS

Crosslinked at Future Challenges Organization‘s blog

Macrotrends: [Pandemics + Security & Antiterror Policy]

A new drug, whoonga, has hit the streets of South Africa- most prominently in Durban‘s impoverished townships. Whoonga is a cocktail of heroin, crystal meth, cannabis and various unknown chemicals- which likely include detergent powder and rat poison. More relevantly, one of the more popular ingredients of this street drugs is antiretroviral drugs for AIDS. Increasing demand for whoonga has had detrimental effects on South Africa‘s fight against HIV/AIDS. There have been reports of clinics being robbed, as well as illicit sales of life-saving antiretroviral drugs to drug dealers and addicts. These factors undermine impoverished HIV-positive patients‘ access to treatment.

Whoonga in Durban today is comparable to Tik in Cape Town in 2007. Both are highly addictive and relatively cheap. Both also have crack meth as active ingredients. However, whoonga costs about twenty Rand (about three US dollars) a hit, whereas tik is about thirty-three Rands (about 5 US dollars) a hit. When 40 per cent of all South Africans survive on about $2 a day, this no doubt, contributes to crime rates (particularly theft). Consequently, the demand for whoonga is affecting South Africa‘s fight against HIV/AIDS directly. The average whoonga user needs six or seven hits a day, but for most users, this is too expensive.

There have been reports of HIV/AIDS clinics being broken into and robbed. There have also been reports that HIV and AIDS patients and unethical health workers sell the antiretroviral drugs to drug dealers and addicts for a profit. HIV/AIDS has a very close relationship to poverty, so for many patients, the choice between selling their heavily-subsidized antiretroviral drugs for food or housing or taking the medicine is no choice at all. Officials, including South African Police Service Colonel Jay Naicker, emphatically state that the antiretroviral drugs have no addictive quality, nor do they contribute to a ‚high.‘

According to Al Jazeera, there have been reports of whoonga addicts attempting to become infected with HIV in order to procure free doses of antiretroviral drugs. Whoonga suppresses addicts‘ heart and liver functions, so adding an HIV infection would mean further suppression of the immune system. Withdrawal symptoms are painful and can only be relieved with small doses of whoonga. This is clearly an issue of public health and safety.

In response, Project Whoonga, situated in Kwadebeka, a township outside of Durban, offers a support group for addicts in recovery. Their primary demographic are youth ages 12 to 25. The program includes mentoring, rehabilitation and skills training for present and recovering whoonga adults. Presently, Project Whoonga has about 50 addicts in recovery. However, Project Whoonga is currently underfunded, relying primarily on locally-raised funds. There are plans to expand Project Whoonga‘s efforts to KwaZulu Natal. If you are interested in donating, you may do so on Project Whoonga‘s homepage.

While Project Whoonga‘s initiatives to rehabilitate and reintegrate youth addicted to whoonga are necessary and praiseworthy, they are insufficient on a larger scale. The South African Police Service is underquipped to address the spread of whoonga and the crime rates that accompany demand for the drug. Also, the theft and illicit sale of antiretroviral drugs is undercutting impoverished HIV/AIDS patients‘ access to life-saving drugs. In my previous article entitled „World Trade Organization Policies and the Fight Against AIDS“, I wrote:

South Africa has seen an increase in maternal and child mortality since the 1990s. AIDS is the largest cause of maternal mortality in South Africa and accounts for 35% of deaths in children under 5.  There is hope, because the coverage of antiretroviral for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV has exceeded 80% as of 2009.

This is what‘s at stake as the street drug whoonga spreads through South Africa‘s townships. Obviously, the solutions are not simple or straightforward. It will be necessary to address poverty and underemployment in Durban, while making efforts to lower crime rates and drug addictions, further incentivizing investment into the communities.

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