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HIV drugs turned street drugs in South Africa

Teens in South Africa have found a new use for efavirenz (brand name Stocrin in South Africa and Sustiva in the U.S.), an antiretroviral drug that prevents HIV from making copies of itself in the body. Instead of using efavirenz as it was intended – to keep the AIDS virus at bay – kids are crushing the pills and smoking the powder to get high, ABC News reports.

When taken as prescribed, efavirenz can cause side effects, including drowsiness and vivid, colorful dreams, but when smoked, it induces hallucinations and is highly addictive. "Once you've first started, there's no turning back," a 17-year-old addict told ABC News.

Krista Dong, an infectious disease specialist and internist at Edendale Hospital in South Africa’s KwaZulu Natal province, tells ScientificAmerican.com that the abuse of efavirenz is nothing new.

"It was first reported at least one and a half years ago," she says, noting that the trend has led to stricter oversight of efavirenz in hospitals, which in turn has caused delays in delivering the drug to patients in need. Before efavirenz had any street value, nurses wheeling drug carts through the hospital dispensed it to HIV/AIDS patients, but now the drug is locked it away in the hospital's main pharmacy, seven floors below the ward, Dong explains. For nurses who may be caring for as many as 40 extremely ill patients at a time, making special trips to this pharmacy costs precious time, she adds.

As for HIV patients being treated with efavirenz outside the hospital, "they are in danger of being robbed for these medications," according to Zinhle Thabethe, an HIV counselor at Edendale. Thabethe says that teenagers sometimes steal the drug from their ailing parents to get high. 

Image © iStockphoto/kWaiGon

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