Report on the first government-funded opioid substitution programme for heroin users in the Western Cape Province, South Africa

  • G Michie
  • S Hoosain
  • M Macharia
  • L Weich


Background. Although pharmacological opioid substitution treatment (OST) is a well-established treatment modality for heroin addiction, it is a relatively recent introduction in low- and middle-income countries.
Objective. To report on a pilot OST programme initiated in 2013 that was the only public-funded programme in South Africa (SA) at the time. Participants were offered standard care only (n=68) or, for the OST group (n=67), standard care plus Suboxone (Reckitt Benckiser), a synthetic partial opioid agonist, in a 12-week clinician-monitored programme.
Methods. Clinical records of 135 participants in the rehabilitation programme at Sultan Bahu Rehabilitation Centre in Mitchell’s Plain, Cape Town, SA, from 1 January to 31 December 2014 were reviewed. Data collected included demographics and duration in treatment (retention) as well as number of urine samples provided, positive tests or self-reported use events and dates of first positive/negative tests.
Results. Significantly more participants in the OST group (65.7%) than controls (44.1%) completed the treatment (p=0.019). Among the non-completers, retention was higher in the OST group than in the standard care group (48.2 v. 30.1 days; p=0.001). The groups did not differ in respect of number of missed appointments and time to first positive test. However, the proportion of participants testing positive was higher in the OST group (80.6%) than in the standard care group (61.8%), although the former were tested nearly three times (18.3 v. 6.6 times) more. Consequently, the positive rate (proportion of positive tests) was substantially lower in the OST group (16.8%) than in the standard care group (23.3%).
Conclusions. The results demonstrate modest success of this pilot OST programme in terms of completion and retention and should argue for a move to increase availability of and accessibility to OSTs for the management of opioid use disorder.


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eISSN: 0256-95749
print ISSN: 2078-5135