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, South Africa’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.
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.