Using respondent-driven sampling (RDS) to recruit illegal poly-substance users in Cape Town, South Africa: implications and future directions

Background: South Africa continues to witness an increase in illicit poly-substance use, although a precise measurement continues to be compounded by difficulties in accessing users. In a pilot attempt to use respondent-driven sampling (RDS)—a chain referral sampling method used to access populations of individuals who are ‘hard-to-reach’—this article documents the feasibility of the method as recorded in a simultaneously run, multisite, poly-substance study in Cape Town. Here we aim to a) document the piloting of RDS among poly-substance users in the three socio-economic disparate communities targeted; b) briefly document the results; and c) review the utility of RDS as a research tool. Methods: Three cross-sectional surveys using standard RDS procedures were used to recruit active poly-substance users and were concurrently deployed in three sites. Formative research was initially conducted to assess the feasibility of the survey. To determine whether RDS could be used to successfully recruit poly-substance users, social network characteristics, such as network size was determined. Results: A 42.5 % coupon return rate was recorded in total from 12 initial seeds. There were vast differences in the recruitment chains of individual seeds—two generated more than 90 recruits, and 2 of the 10 recruitment chains showing a length of more than 10 waves. Findings include evidence of the use of 3 or more substances in all three sites, high levels of unemployment among users, with more than a third of participants in two sites reporting arrest for drug use in the past 12 months. Conclusions: Our results indicate that RDS was a feasible and acceptable sampling method for recruiting participants who may not otherwise be accessible. Future studies can use RDS to recruit such cohorts, and the method could form part of broader efforts to document vulnerable populations.