Crooks, addicts steal Aids drugs

28 November 2010 - 02:00

The roll-out of the government's multibillion-rand anti-retroviral (ARV) programme is under threat from syndicates that are stealing the ingredients for a deadly new drug.

The syndicates, operating in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Western Cape, have raided clinics, mugged Aids patients and attempted to hijack distribution trucks.

The government's treatment sites - there are about 4000 which provide ARVs to about 700000 patients - are also being targeted.

The drug, called whoonga or wunga, is a concoction of dagga, the Stocrin antiretroviral and several other substances, including chemicals contained in rat poison. It is used by thousands of addicts who are paying between R15 and R35 for a dose.

An addict can use more than seven Stocrin tablets a day, according to Project Whoonga, an NGO combating the drug.

National police spokesman Colonel Vish Naidoo said they were aware of the problem. "We are on top of the situation," he added.

But Aids activists, city councillors and healthcare workers in the four provinces said there were up to 100 new cases a week of Aids patients being robbed of Stocrin, also known as Efavirenz and Sustiva.

The Sunday Times has also learnt ANC councillors, leaders of community policing forums, the police and Aids activists, that over the past month:

  • About 75 Aids patients a week have been robbed of their medication in Durban's Umlazi township;
  • More than 25 patients a week have been mugged in Durban's Clermont township;
  • A syndicate attempted to hijack a government vehicle delivering drugs to an Mzamo Clinic at St Wendoline near Mariannhill outside Durban;
  • Gangs, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, have attempted to raid clinics and steal Stocrin;
  • Some addicts have even deliberately infected themselves with the HI virus to secure a regular supply of Stocrin from state health services;
  • Durban police are investigating two massacres related to whoonga, in which 11 people, including three children, were killed, at Durban's Itshelimnyama township and at Shongweni near Mariannhill; and
  • The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) in the Eastern Cape recently launched an investigation into allegations that clinic nurses are selling Stocrin to syndicates.

Project Whoonga founder Thokozani Sokhulu said he knew of addicts who had deliberately infected themselves with HIV to ensure they got a regular supply of Stocrin.

Anwar Jeewa, the director of the Durban rehabilitation centre Minds Alive, said one user got his teenage sister addicted to the drug and then forced her into prostitution to get money for the drug.

The new drug craze comes 15 months after Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi warned that SA would not meet its target of providing ARVs to 80% of people living with HIV/Aids by 2011 due to logistical problems and a lack of personnel. The government has subsequently committed a further R3-billion to its national prevention and treatment programme.

The Sunday Times has also established that KwaZulu-Natal, which has more than 400000 patients on ARV programmes, is the hardest hit of the nine provinces.

Provincial Health Department spokesman Maxon Chris said the department did not keep statistics of the number of patients that had been robbed of their medication. However, Umlazi's ANC councillor Sithenjwa Nyawose said he was aware of as many as 15 patients being mugged each week and described the situation as "out of control".

Nyawose related how an armed gang stormed into the township's G Section clinic and stole a large supply of Stocrin.

"They were armed and ruthless. Our community is under siege," he said.

KZN provincial police spokesman Vincent Mdunge, who became aware of the theft several months ago, said police investigating the deaths in Itshelimnyama and Shongweni had established that the killers were high on whoonga.

"This crisis is far worse than what we anticipated," he said.

Police in Gauteng and Western Cape said this week that they were also aware of a number of cases.

National police spokesman Naidoo said: "People have been robbed ... we have received reports from other departments, but not on such a big scale (as in KwaZulu-Natal)."