Nyaope: dangerous drug, dangerous misconceptions

  • Melody Hu - 7 May 2013

Despite evidence that disproves the popular belief that antiretroviral (ARVs) drugs are an ingredient in nayope or “whoonga”, media coverage on the street drug continues to perpetuate this misconception.

This week a story on community action against whoonga in the Sowetan (6 May 2013) listed ARVs as one of the primary ingredients after heroin.

Even internationally-renowned sources such as NPR make the mistake of describing whoonga as a “concoction of an AIDS medication and a street drug, like marijuana or heroin” as recently as December 2012.

While the spread of whoonga use is certainly a newsworthy and distressing societal ill, many news outlets have been negligent in stopping the spread of another problem: the inaccurate perception that antiretroviral (ARV) drugs – in particular, the drug efavirenz – are an active ingredient in the street drug.  

Despite the majority of nayope-related coverage falling into this trap, an edition of last week’s The Star (30 April 2013) bucked the trend and dismissed ARVs as an active component of the street drug.  This example of considered and critical coverage proves that it is possible for the media to cut the ties between nyaope and ARVs.

Stories about the street drug whoonga, also known as nayope, have been a fixture in local media since the drug first surfaced in 2006 in local South African townships. In recent years whoonga-related coverage grew as the side effects of the drug – severe addiction and a rise in crime to finance the habit – are increasingly felt by users, their families and communities.

The unfortunate link between whoonga and ARVs was first established in early reports on the street drug, which listed ARVs amongst a laundry list of ingredients, including heroin, rat poison, and marijuana. The fact that efavirenz, when taken orally, can sometimes produce side effects such as double vision and vivid dreams may contribute to its being believed to be an ingredient, according to the Harvard School of Public Health’s Dr. David Grelotti.  

However, a number of experts have recently provided compelling evidence to the contrary.

Laboratory analyses of numerous local batches of whoonga in 2011 found no traces of ARVs in any of the samples, instead pinpointing heroin and rat poison as the major and active components of the street drug.

Furthermore, the heavy molecular weight of efavirenz makes it difficult to vaporise and thus almost impossible to smoke, according to UKZN’s Dr. Thavender Govender .President Jacob Zuma has also spoken out against this misconception.

It is no wonder then that reports of whoonga-related ARV theft from HIV clinics and even individual HIV-positive patients have made news in the past.

These incidents pointlessly damage treatment outcomes for the millions of HIV-positive South Africans who depend on ARVs to stay healthy – and coverage of these incidents that does not actively dispel the underlying misconceptions will only continue to perpetuate the misinformation and its negative consequences.


--Melody Hu is an intern at the Anova Health Institute

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“reports of whoonga-related ARV theft from HIV clinics and even individual HIV-positive patients have made news in the past”