JOHANNESBURG Millions of South Africans with HIV face a new worry -- being robbed of life-prolonging medicine by drug gangs who use it to lace a highly addictive marijuana cocktail known to its smokers as "whoonga."
As the government responsible for the world's biggest population of HIV infected people -- nearly 6 million -- prepares to make antiretroviral (ARV) drugs more widely available, authorities are trying to stamp out the illegal trade, tighten security for ARV supplies and make patients aware of the risks of theft.
Whoonga mixtures can include rat poison and other cheap substances which smokers think enhance the high from marijuana. Police say lacing it with powdered tablets of the antiretroviral Efavirenz, or Stocrin, has little real effect. But street users believe the HIV drug boosts whoonga's hallucinogenic properties.
"It is a relatively new drug that began to surface a few months ago and fortunately for now, is confined to a few areas," Vish Naidoo, spokesman for the national police agency, said of the ARV-laced doses of whoonga selling for $2 or $3 a hit.
Its use has so far been limited, encouraging police to believe they can nip the problem in the bud. But in townships in the eastern KwaZulu-Natal province, some HIV patients receiving the medication have been mugged and clinics robbed.
"I see the youngsters who are affected, people as young as 13, 14 and 15," said Ntombizonke Ndlovu, a local official with the Treatment Action Campaign, an HIV/AIDS advocacy group.
"They are getting mixed up in this whoonga thing. Crime is growing like crazy."
Victims have mostly stayed silent, fearing if they report thefts to police, they would be exposed as infected with HIV. It remains a stigma for many in a country where the U.N. says 5.7 million people in a population of 49 million are sufferers.
Local media have been filled with breathless reports, saying it takes just two puffs to be hooked and the whoonga craze has sparked a new level of lawlessness in the crime-ridden country.
(Editing by Alastair Macdonald)