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Published On: Thu, May 14th, 2009

South-Africa Teens Smoking Precious HIV Drugs

ABC News’ Jim Sciutto reports from South Africa:

For the more than five million South Africans infected with HIV, there is a growing threat to their last, best chance of survival. We saw the extent of the problem on a recent trip to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

South Africa has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the world — and KwaZulu-Natal province the highest in South Africa.

There, we found a booming addiction to a drug that’s intended to save lives. The drug is the anti-retroviral, or ARV, Efavarinz — when taken correctly, the only treatment available for HIV; when crushed and smoked, a cheap high with no medical benefit.

In a known drug den, we witnessed two high school students abusing the drug after school.

 

One told me, “If you start it there’s no turning back.” JIM: “Do you want to stop?” A: “Yes, yes I do.” JIM: “But you can’t?” A: “Yes, I can’t.”

Many ARV’s in South Africa are paid for and distributed by the US government, a program credited with extending the lives of more than half-a-million HIV sufferers. Doctors at a US-funded clinic told us ARV abuse is threatening to reverse that progress.

“You’re trying to fight this epidemic that has ravaged the world so much and the results are catastrophic,” said Dr. Njabulo Mabaso, of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation.

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Driving through the slums of Durban with a local HIV worker, we found evidence of a thriving black market, with dealers on every corner. Many of their customers are teenagers.

The drug has devastating effects on addicts and their families. Dudu told us her 21-year-old son steals from her to feed his habit.

“Sometimes if I said I’m gonna call the police he said he gonna kill me,” she told me. “I believe him.”

ARV abuse is now endangering South Africa’s wider fight against AIDS. By smoking the drug, abusers are in effect giving HIV a small taste of anti-retroviral medication -– not enough to kill the virus, but enough for it to potentially develop resistance to the drug.

You’ll find that we have a second epidemic emerging, an epidemic that we cannot control with the current drug that we have,” said Dr. Njabulo Mabaso.

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