According to the 2002
National HIV and Syphilis Antenatal Sero-prevalence, based on a sample of more
than 16,000 women attending antenatal clinics in the country's nine provinces,
recorded a rate of 12.4 percent, compared to a prevalence level of 16 percent
to 36.5 percent in other provinces.
However, this figure rose by three percent over the next two years, causing some
experts to suspect that increased levels of HIV might be linked to the growing
popularity of a relatively new but highly addictive and easily accessible drug.
Andreas Pluddemann, a senior researcher in alcohol and drug abuse at the Medical
Research Council (MRC), recalled that sporadic queries about a mysterious
substance known only as 'tik' began reaching the offices of the South African
National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (SANCA), and the Cape Town Drug
Counselling Centre (CTDCC) three years ago.
"It turned out to be crystal d-methamphetamine hydrochloride, otherwise
known as 'speed', 'ice', 'crystal meth', 'crystal', or just 'meth'. It is a
crystalline form of methamphetamine, a powerfully addictive stimulant often used
recreationally as a party drug," he told PlusNews.
Pluddemann noted that when drugs became a factor in social settings, such as
nightclubs, there was always a greater danger of risky sexual behaviour.
Among the effects of methamphetamine are euphoria, increased energy, insomnia,
restlessness, irritability and a heightened sense of sexuality, as the drug
removes inhibitions, boosts confidence and heightens the intensity of sex.
"While there are currently no local studies being conducted to suggest that
methamphetamine users could fuel HIV prevalence rates as a result of this
heightened and often risky sexual activity, research already done abroad
indicated that they could," he said.
THE NEED FOR SPEED:
AN AMERICAN TALE
Steven Shoptaw, a psychologist with the Integrated Substance Abuse Programmes at
, in the
, has carried out some of the most comprehensive research into the effects of
the drug on homosexual men in
, where it first gained popularity in the 1990s.
He found that if participants said they had used speed in the past six months,
there was a low but significant chance that they would be HIV-positive among
those who used it "once in a while" the figure was 25 percent when
chronic users were interviewed the figure jumped to 40 percent in outpatient
drug-treatment programmes, 60 percent of users were HIV-positive and of those
in residential care nearly 90 percent were HIV-positive.
Although a study conducted among gay men in the
does not necessarily relate to the situation in
, the MRC recently advised drug-treatment centres in and around the city of
to consider testing meth patients for HIV, especially in view of the steady
increase in the use of the drug in the province.
'TIK'-TOK ... HOW TIME FLIES WHEN WE'RE HAVING FUN
The CTDCC revealed in 2002 that less than one percent of its clients mentioned
crystal meth as their primary drug of choice, so no alarms were triggered when
the number began to rise. Director Grant Jardine noted subsequently that he had
never before witnessed such speedy uptake of a drug, not even heroin, which had
a strong presence among users before the advent of tik.
"By the end of 2003, the number of tik users coming through our doors had
jumped to five percent by the middle of the following year a third of all our
patients were using it and currently, crystal meth has outstripped heroin in
popularity," Jardine told PlusNews.
More than 50 percent of CTDCC clients now used tik as their primary drug of
abuse, while between 20 percent and 25 percent named heroin. "With 98
percent of crystal meth patients in the
coming from the city [
], the MRC has gone so far as to suggest that ... [it] was now the tik capital
," he said.
The ready uptake of the drug was mainly attributed
to its low cost of about US4 per gram, and because it produced states of
euphoria lasting up to three days at a time. Jardine also noted that when users
were unable to raise the cash for their next fix, theft and commercial sex by
both men and women could not be ruled out.
"Obviously this presented the user with increased chances of contracting
HIV/AIDS, as some might be willing to forego protection in order score another
hit. I imagine that men would also become more receptive to anal intercourse
because of the definite occurrence of erectile dysfunction brought on during the
high that the drug created."
Jardine's assumption has long been shared by the MRC's Prof Charles Parry, who
stated in a 'Methamphetamine Fact Sheet' released in November last year that
long-term use increased the risk of contracting HIV and Hepatitis C as a result
of injection drug use and risky sexually behaviour.
Even more alarming than the supercharged libido created by the drug was its
appeal to non-typical drug users, including school-aged children.
AGE IS JUST A NUMBER
PlusNews managed to interview a female recovering crystal meth user aged 14
receiving counselling at SANCA. It is not uncommon for children as young as 10
to be addicted to crystal meth in
Jody Smith is a presentable, eloquent grade 9 (standard 7) pupil who "just
loves" mathematics and looks forward to school every day. She is the image
of every parent's dream girl-child but has been a crystal meth addict for nearly
"It just happened - I did not plan to use tik," she said. "Me and
a couple of school friends skipped class one day and were bored, so we pooled
our money and decided to buy tik. We had heard about it from kids at school and
just wanted to see what it would be like. You have to smoke it out of a glass
pipe and I got it all wrong - my friends laughed at me, but showed me how to do
it the right way."
The drug is usually sold in cool drink straws with the ends sealed, and Jody and
her friends managed to buy two 'straws'. At least a month went by before her
cousin suggested they try it again.
"We did it again, and before long it had gone from one to two, and then
three and four straws at a time, but the feeling was nice because it gave me
lots of energy. But I remember how paranoid I felt at one point when I had to
use public transport home after smoking."
She said she would probably still have been smoking, but she had a disagreement
with her cousin, who told her grandparents. "I live with my granny because
my mom works away from home, in [the inner-city suburb of]
, and I only met my father in May this year after my grandparents told him about
my addiction. In a way, I am grateful that they found out. I have been coming to
counselling here at SANCA since May and don't even need to be accompanied by my
ANYONE CAN BE A MAD SCIENTIST
The MRC fact sheet on tik showed that in the first half of 2005 the average age
of patients reporting methamphetamine as their primary substance of abuse was 21
years, and 76 percent were male. Most of the patients - 92 percent - were
mixed-race or so-called 'coloured', 7 percent were white, 0.5 percent were
Indian/Asian and 0.5 percent were Black/African.
Almost 50 percent of patients were younger than 20, but ages ranged from 12 to
Cherith Langenhoven, Jody's psychological counsellor at SANCA, said although
addiction was rife within coloured communities, which were often characterised
by high unemployment, crime and gang wars, she suspected that this had little to
do with the speedy uptake of meth. "Anyone with a high-school knowledge of
chemistry could manufacture the substance, because the recipe is accessible over
the internet and the ingredients can be found in your own kitchen."
These included battery acid, paraffin, antifreeze, hydrochloric acid, drain
cleaner, lye and over-the-counter cold medications containing ephedrine. The
acidic make up of the drug often resulted in "meth mouth" because of
the rampant tooth decay it often caused.
Like her peers, Langenhoven was also concerned about greater risk during sexual
"Although it is generally accepted that the chances of contracting HIV
through oral sex are minimal because saliva in a healthy mouth is able to
eliminate any HIV that might be present in semen, it is fair to assume that
bleeding gums and decayed teeth resulting from prolonged use of tik would
dramatically increase the user's chance of infection," she told PlusNews.
Parents, teachers and guardians were advised to look out for signs of
methamphetamine use, such as higher levels of physical activity, incessant
talking, anxiety, extreme moodiness and irritability, repetitive behaviour,
depression, sleep disturbances and dilated pupils.
"We encourage the involvement of all role players in reversing this
escalating and dangerous drug craze," Langenhoven stressed, and warned that
if not brought under control soon, the meth situation could help fuel the
country's already worrying HIV/AIDS pandemic.