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Friday 28th October 2016

Gangs stealing HIV drugs

1st March 2011

Gangs looking for their next hit of a home-made street drug are robbing South African patients of their HIV medication.


People living with HIV in the township of Umlazi say they are in constant fear of having their live-saving anti-retroviral drugs stolen from them.

The gangs use the pills together with rat poison and detergent to make a highly toxic and addictive drug known as whoonga.

They also believe the ARV Stocrin boosts the hallucinogenic effects of cannabis, so roll it up in marijuana joints.

Residents of this poor community in KwaZulu-Natal province say they are battling to stay alive.

Phumzile Sibiya, 49, said she has been taking ARV drugs for six months, but now the new wave of crime was causing her daily anxiety.

She said she and other HIV patients had banded together to visit the clinic in a group, to protect each other from attack.

Her local clinic is the biggest distributor of HIV/AIDS drugs in this part of the province, with also has the highest number of HIV infections in South Africa.

Around 700,000 South Africans are taking ARV therapy, which prolongs the lives of people with HIV, although around six million people in the country are believed to be carrying the virus.

The country's police chief Bheki Cele has described whoonga as "a big national concern" and pledged an investigation into the gangs' activities by elite units.

Doctors say the whoonga-linked attacks will limit already stretched reserves of Stocrin.

Clinic chief Bright Mhlongo said Stocrin was the backbone of local ARV treatment programmes.

Recovering whoonga users say they would experience cravings for a fresh hit several times a day, when using the drug, which is cheaper than other street drugs.

They say users are often prepared to use weapons to get the money to buy their next hit.

Whoonga also affects how the body responds to ARV therapy, causing additional problems for users who also live with HIV.

Whoonga can cause internal bleeding, stomach ulcers and in some instances death.

Ex-users say it is highly addictive and that they felt forced to take more of the drug to feel normal and alleviate joint and stomach pains.

The South African government has promised to extend its ARV programme to a wider selection of the population, but will need to control where it ends up at the same time.

Aid workers who work with whoonga victims say people need to be offered an alternative way of life if they are to kick the habit, and that arresting those who sell the drug is not enough by itself.

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