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01.12.2017 | Guideline | Ausgabe 1/2017 Open Access

BMC Medicine 1/2017

Mapping the evidence on pharmacological interventions for non-affective psychosis in humanitarian non-specialised settings: a UNHCR clinical guidance

BMC Medicine > Ausgabe 1/2017
Giovanni Ostuzzi, Corrado Barbui, Charlotte Hanlon, Sudipto Chatterjee, Julian Eaton, Lynne Jones, Derrick Silove, Peter Ventevogel
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Electronic supplementary material

The online version of this article (doi:10.​1186/​s12916-017-0960-z) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.



Populations exposed to humanitarian emergencies are particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, including new onset, relapse and deterioration of psychotic disorders. Inadequate care for this group may lead to human rights abuses and even premature death. The WHO Mental Health Gap Action Programme Intervention Guide (mhGAP-IG), and its adaptation for humanitarian settings (mhGAP-HIG), provides guidance for management of mental health conditions by non-specialised healthcare professionals. However, the pharmacological treatment of people with non-affective psychosis who do not improve with mhGAP first-line antipsychotic treatments is not addressed. In order to fill this gap, UNHCR has formulated specific guidance on the second-line pharmacological treatment of non-affective psychosis in humanitarian, non-specialised settings.


Following the Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) methodology, a group of international experts performed an extensive search and retrieval of evidence on the basis of four scoping questions. Available data were critically appraised and summarised. Clinical guidance was produced by integrating this evidence base with context-related feasibility issues, preferences, values and resource-use considerations.


When first-line treatments recommended by mhGAP (namely haloperidol and chlorpromazine) are not effective, no other first-generation antipsychotics are likely to provide clinically meaningful improvements. Risperidone or olanzapine may represent beneficial second-line options. However, if these second-line medications do not produce clinically significant beneficial effects, there are two possibilities. First, to switch to the alternative (olanzapine to risperidone or vice versa) or, second, to consider clozapine, provided that specialist supervision and regular laboratory monitoring are available in the long term. If clinically relevant depressive, cognitive or negative symptoms occur, the use of a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor may be considered in addition or as an alternative to standard psychological interventions.


Adapting scientific evidence into practical guidance for non-specialised health workers in humanitarian settings was challenging due to the paucity of relevant evidence as well as the imprecision and inconsistency of results between studies. Pragmatic outcome evaluation studies from low-resource contexts are urgently needed. Nonetheless, the UNHCR clinical guidance is based on best available evidence and can help to address the compelling issue of undertreated, non-affective psychosis in humanitarian settings.
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