- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 24, 2010

JOHANNESBURG | AIDS patients in South Africa are being robbed of their lifesaving drugs so that they can be mixed with marijuana and smoked, authorities and health experts say.

The concoction is called “whoonga” — less a word than an exclamation — and it adds a bizarre twist to the war on AIDS in the world’s worst-affected country just as it embarks on a massive distribution of medications.

Whoonga’s spread is so far limited to eastern KwaZulu-Natal, the country’s most AIDS-stricken province, but AIDS and addiction specialists worry that it could reach other parts of the country.

There’s no evidence that any ingredient of the AIDS drug cocktail is addictive or does anything to enhance the marijuana high. Whoonga smokers may be fooling themselves into believing the AIDS drugs are giving them a high, when it’s really some other ingredient, says Dr. Njabulo Mabaso, an AIDS expert.

AIDS is already a source of damaging myths in South Africa, such as that the disease can be prevented by sleeping with a virgin or showering after sex with an HIV-positive partner.

A crushed AIDS drug is shown in the palm of a smoker's hand in the Kwadebeka Township near Durban, South Africa. AIDS patients in South Africa are being robbed of their lifesaving drugs so that they can be mixed with marijuana and smoked, authorities and health experts say. (Associated Press)
A crushed AIDS drug is shown in the palm of a smoker’s ... more >

Some drug dealers are suspected of stretching the whoonga mixture with soap powder and even rat poison to increase their profits.

“We are seeing the use of whoonga in communities and its very widespread. It’s a substance that is openly spoken about in communities,” says Lihle Dlamini of the Treatment Action Campaign, which has lobbied hard to improve the government’s response to AIDS.

Drug dealers “are taking this treatment that is supposed to assist people living with HIV and abusing it,” Ms. Dlamini says.

In the eastern port city of Durban, Thamsanqa Langa said he didn’t know what whoonga was when dealers first started offering the cream-colored powder at 20 rand (about $3) a smoke.

It smelled to him of vinegar, said Mr. Langa, a soft-spoken 30-year-old of few words.

At first it just quieted him more. “You feel like you can say nothing. You can just sit in a quiet place, not talking,” he said.

But after a few days, Mr. Langa said, he started having powerful headaches, stomach pains and night sweats. When he went back to dealers, “They said, ‘You need to smoke more, keep on smoking,’” Mr. Langa recalled in an interview. “That’s how I got hooked.”

He mooched AIDS drugs from HIV-infected friends, robbed houses, became a dealer and missed so many workdays that he lost his factory job. He says he smoked whoonga for four years until he gave it up in March.

Vincent Ndunge, a police spokesman in KwaZulu-Natal, said whoonga was first noticed two or three years ago when officers found gangs were robbing people of medication as they left hospitals.

Initially users crushed the pills and smoked them straight, but added other substances later, Mr. Ndunge said.

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