A woman is set to appear in the Empangeni Magistrate’s Court on Friday for a bail application after she was busted with antiretroviral (ARV) medication with a street value of R300 000.
Nombuso Sithole, 38, believed to be linked to an ARV theft syndicate, was arrested on a charge of theft and illegal possession of a schedule 4 prescribed drug.
"The accused appeared in the Empangeni Magistrate's Court on February 12 2016," KwaZulu-Natal police spokesperson, Thulani Zwane, told Health24.
She was apprehended at her home during a sting operation after members of the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Crime Intelligence Unit received a tip-off.
Police confiscated over 300 bottles of ARVs that was on sale for a R1 000 each.
The ARVs, which were recovered at Ngwelezane in the northern part of KwaZulu-Natal, are believed to have come from a clinic near Margate on the South Coast.
The lifesaving pharmaceuticals are believed to be sold to drug dealers to manufacture the popular street drug whoonga.
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According to a 2013 study Whoonga: Potential Recreational Use of HIV Antiretroviral Medication in South Africa, the drug is rumored to contain other illicit drugs and ARVs.
"Perceptions of whoonga suggest that it is highly addictive, contains ARVs (notably efavirenz), is used by individuals as young as 14, and poses a threat to the health and safety of those who use it, including increasing the risk of HIV infection," the researchers wrote.
Another study title: Whoonga and the Abuse and Diversion of Antiretrovirals in Soweto, South Africa found that participants reported that ARVs, likely efavirenz, are crushed and added in a mixture known as whoonga, and then smoked.
"They [participants] described medications being stolen from patients and expressed concern that antiretroviral abuse jeopardised the safety of both patients and users," the authors noted.
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Authorities are investigating a possibility of health workers being involved.
Zwane said the merits of the case cannot be revealed at this stage, adding that the case was transferred to Richards Bay detectives for further investigation.
"Anyone who witness any criminal activities must immediately contact police," he urged.
Aids lobby group Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) strongly condemned the theft of ARVs.
"We hope that the law will take its course swiftly and decisively and that all involved will be brought to justice," TAC Senior Researcher Lotti Rutter told Health24.
She said many people need ARVs to stay alive and to suppress the virus in their bodies to reduce the risk of onward infection.
"The theft of ARVs is taking ARVs away from the people who need them and placing the health and lives of our people at risk," Rutter warned.
KwaZulu-Natal Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo commended the police for their good work and warned healthcare officials that they will face harsh repercussions should they be found guilty of stealing ARVs.
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