Whoonga Addiction: South Africa’s Newest Scourge

Prevalent in Durban, South Africa, whoonga is a highly addictive drug comprised of low-grade heroin, household chemicals and antiretroviral medication. A researcher at Harvard University’s School of Public Health examined the drug whoonga and the effects it’s having on an impoverished society. There are no whoonga statistics to share, and no one is really certain what is inside this damaging drug — but it is certain this highly addictive drug wrecks the plans and dreams of South Africa’s most vulnerable citizens every day.

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The Relationship Between HIV and Whoonga

Some believe whoonga is a myth, yet Dr. David J. Grelotti, a Research Fellow at Harvard, saw for himself the effects of this dangerous drug. Whoonga use is rampant in Durban’s public parks. Many believe the drug contains cheap heroin, rat poison, household cleaners and HIV medication.

Durban is a community marred by one of the highest rates of HIV in the world. Dr. Grelotti observed that repeated exposure to antiretroviral drugs through whoonga abuse may increase resistance, thus reducing the lifesaving effects of essential HIV medications. Complicating this whoonga drug effect is the fact that many whoonga abusers may not know they have HIV. The drug is so addictive that many men trade sex for money to buy whoonga, thus increasing their odds of contracting the virus. Even those who want to quit may find themselves continuing to use, because, like heroin, whoonga causes a painful and uncomfortable withdrawal.

Whoonga, Crime and Treatment

It’s no secret that individuals with addiction are willing to do anything to chase the next high. Selling possessions, stealing from loved ones, committing violent crimes and turning to sex work are all-too-common behaviors. In Africa, it’s no different. According to Dr. Grelotti, whoonga addicts “‘empty their homes’ of their belongings to pay for whoonga…young men addicted to whoonga trade sex for money to buy drugs. ‘Whoonga gangs’ have also reportedly engaged in violent crime to steal money or goods. Indeed, it is presumed that a substantial portion of Durban’s urban crime is related to whoonga.”

Unlike in the U.S., however — where substance abuse treatment is readily available — South Africa’s struggling addicts do not enjoy the same access to care. “What was once a hidden epidemic is beginning to be recognized as a significant public health concern,” Dr. Grelotti observes. “It underscores the need for the provision of comprehensive clinical services that include mental health and substance abuse treatment in every corner of the globe.”

Dr. Grelotti spoke with a young whoonga abuser named Sipho who was lucky. Many South African townships — including Sipho’s — lack addiction treatment services. Yet his family was able to locate the SANCA Lulama Treatment Centre in Durban, where he was able to receive lifesaving treatment. Just like addicted people in the U.S., Sipho realized whoonga was the only obstacle in the path of his dreams of finishing his degree and finding employment.

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