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Addictive drug threatens the future of South African youth

Addictive drug threatens the future of South African youth

By Charissa Sparks

17 November 2010
A new drug has arrived in townships surrounding the city of Durban, South Africa. Highly addictive, the drug leaves many users in debt and family members anxious for a solution.

Whoonga, usually smoked, is a mixture of various substances including HIV medications called anti-retrovirals (ARVs), rat poison, and detergent. The drug is said to be one of the most addictive in the world; users can become hooked after the first try and often experience withdrawal symptoms after the first hit.

“Most people find it hard to believe that one smoke is all it takes and you are hooked,” Gwala Vumani, Director of Project Whoonga said in an interview with MediaGlobal.

“Due to lack of unemployment and lack of skills and positive projects, South African youth find themselves doing nothing,” said Vumani. “This allows them time to experiment with new drugs such as Whoonga.”

After taking the drugs, individuals become anxious and aggressive, and may suffer from various pains including but not limited to back pain, excessive sweating, headache, and potentially deadly stomach cramps. “All symptoms can be cured by a single dose every time,” Vumani informed.

Each dose costs about $3, and individuals addicted to the drug require about 6 doses every day. “If you are unemployed, this is a high price to pay,” said Vumani. It is especially high since 40 percent of the people in South Africa live on less than $2 a day. “However, users find the pain associated with Whoonga unbearable, and resort to committing petty crimes to feed their addiction.”

Once this pattern begins, it’s hard to stop. “What do you do when you cannot continue to commit reckless offenses to feed your addiction? People find it easier to get free doses of anti-retroviral drugs than to pay their way through crime,” she said.

The South African government’s anti-retroviral policy allows all HIV positive people to gain access to the antiretroviral treatment for free. In some instances users are deliberately trying to infect themselves with HIV to receive the free medication, Vumani said.

While users may see this as a quick fix, Clair Savage, senior information officer at SANCA, told MediaGlobal,“To deliberately get infected and accelerate the disease procession so that one’s CD4 count made one eligible for ARVs would be a long process, which would not bring the quick fix most dependents crave. However, this is not to say it doesn’t happen.”

She explained that all drug dependents become focused on getting the high the drug gives them and relationships, work, and other interested are severely affected. It becomes the most important thing in their lives.

Although lives of users are being taken over by Whoonga, people find it difficult to quit because of the pains that come with ending use. Lack of information about Whoonga has resulted in more and more people engaging themselves without realizing what they are getting themselves into.

There are varying experiences when taking Whoonga, but those who use it say they feel like the best people ever. Others feel at peace, and some reported it helped them sleep. While these may be the initial reasons to begin taking the drug, the withdrawal seems to be so severe that the unpleasantness is what keeps them using again and again.

“This drug has turned our beloved township into a jungle. Families with addicts live in constant fear of vigilantes that threaten to get rid of this crime using violence and families have gotten their homes burned down,” Vumani lamented.

It is tragic that the communities most affected by this abuse are also trying to deal with the challenges of unemployment, poverty, and HIV/AIDS, said Savage. “I am concerned about the emotional toll that drug abuse exacts as well as challenges and these folk may lack the resources to significantly change what is happening.”

While the drug became popular only about a year ago, authorities believe users have increased by thousands in the past year and use is likely to spread without intervention.

“Whoonga is a huge setback in the fight against HIV/AIDS,” said Vumani, and Project Whoonga is focused on ending the use of the drug. Helping those struggling with addiction to this drug, Project Whoonga helps identify, motivate, and rehabilitate users and reintegrate them back into the community.

Without more projects geared toward youth and opportunities for education and school building, young people in Durban are likely to continue experimenting with drugs as a way to pass the time. The future of these young people lies in the hands of community leaders and their attention to the seriousness of the situation.


© Scoop Media

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