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UWC Study Highlights Urgent Need for Effective Substance Use Screening in Pregnant Women

Substance use during pregnancy is a critical global health concern, impacting both maternal and fetal well-being. In South Africa, where substance use rates are among the highest globally, addressing this issue becomes even more urgent.

University of the Western Cape (UWC) Masters graduate Nyanisa Gqwede based her 2024 study on previous research conducted in 2014. She sheds light on substance use screening methods among pregnant women attending public sector antenatal clinics in the Cape Metropole.

Gqwede’s study contributes valuable insights into screening tools for maternal substance use. Health institutions can make informed decisions by identifying commonly used methods and their limitations. Implementing effective screening can lead to early interventions, improving maternal and child health outcomes.

As South Africa grapples with substance use challenges, evidence-based approaches are crucial for better care and prevention. The study focused on three assessments: alcohol, cannabis, and heroin. Researchers collected urine samples from pregnant women attending 11 public sector clinics across eight health sub-districts in Cape Town. These samples underwent immunoassay testing, which detects metabolites of specific drugs.  Ethyl glucuronide, a direct alcohol metabolite – a substance formed when the body breaks down drugs or chemicals – was used to identify recent alcohol consumption. Urine drug screens are cost-effective and rapid, making them the preferred initial test for urine drug screening.

The Department of Social Development (DSD) has acknowledged weaknesses in monitoring substance use service quality. Unlike high-income countries, South Africa lacks a comprehensive system for assessing substance use treatment. Pregnant women encounter systemic, structural, social, cultural, and personal barriers when seeking help for substance use disorders, according to a 2023 DSD study.

The study concluded that understanding substance use during pregnancy is essential, especially in the South African context. Addressing barriers and leveraging practical screening tools can enhance the well-being of both mothers and their unborn children.

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