Management of bipolar disorder in South Africa: National Department of Health essential medicine selection and treatment algorithms

Main Article Content

L J Robertson
H Dawood
T D Leong


Background. Bipolar disorder (BD) is a severe mental illness associated with multimorbidity, psychosocial disability and significant public health issues. However, guideline heterogeneity clouds therapeutic decisions, particularly in relapse prevention. Polypharmacy and poor health outcomes are common. For low- and middle-income countries, deciding which medicines to procure and how to treat BD in an integrated manner remains elusive. Although South Africa (SA) is committed to universal health coverage, the estimated treatment gap for mental disorders in the public health sector is 91%. An Essential Medicines List (EML) enables equitable access to medicines, while Standard Treatment Guidelines (STGs) facilitate rational prescribing and quality care.

Objectives. To describe the medicine selection process for the treatment of BD in the SA public health sector, and the treatment algorithms developed to guide integrated care.

Methods. Evidence-based medicine principles, stakeholder consultation and consensus decision-making were used. The existing (2015) BD guideline and stakeholder comments were reviewed by a ministerially appointed expert review committee, following which a research question with eligibility criteria was formed, and rapid systematic evidence synthesis conducted. PubMed and Cochrane databases were searched for systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials and observational studies of acute and maintenance treatment in BD, with an additional PubMed search for primary research. Quality of the systematic reviews was appraised using the 11-item assessment of multiple systematic reviews. After costing to ensure affordability, final recommendations were made to the National EML Committee (NEMLC) using the strength of recommendation taxonomy classification. Following approval by the NEMLC, proposed medicines were incorporated into the 2019 National Department of Health Adult Hospital STGs. As the STGs are updated every 3 years, stakeholder input was sought in 2021 and 2023, with no changes to the medicine selection.

Results. Seven systematic reviews and one observational study were included in the evidence synthesis. Six medicines were selected as essential for maintenance treatment: lithium, valproate, lamotrigine, olanzapine, quetiapine and clozapine. While risperidone and benzodiazepines were retained for acute mania, carbamazepine and fluoxetine were removed from acute depression. Treatment algorithms for predominantly manic and depressive courses of illness were constructed to encourage person-centred care, aiming for euthymia, individual functioning and relapse prevention.

Conclusion. Evidence-based medicine principles enabled the NEMLC to select a range of essential medicines for the management of BD in a middle-income country. Local monitoring and evaluation are needed to inform future editions of the STGs and EML.

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Management of bipolar disorder in South Africa: National Department of Health essential medicine selection and treatment algorithms. (2024). Southern African Journal of Public Health, 7(1), e530.
Original Articles

How to Cite

Management of bipolar disorder in South Africa: National Department of Health essential medicine selection and treatment algorithms. (2024). Southern African Journal of Public Health, 7(1), e530.


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