24 Sep 2013

Improvements to be made to health labs in the Pacific

4:47 pm on 24 September 2013

The public health laboratory network, LabNet, says while there has been considerable progress in the development of Pacific lab services in recent years, challenges remain.

Around 60 representatives of LabNet member countries and organisations met in New Caledonia to review the strengths and weaknesses of the network, set up in 2000.

The Leader of the Public Health Laboratory Strengthening Team at SPC - Salanieta Elbourne - says LabNet is pleased with how far it has come.

But she told Mary Baines there are still areas that need improvement - surveillance of illnesses throughout the Pacific, the quality of lab management and collaboration between animal and human health labs.

SALANIETA ELBOURNE: One of the issues that we are trying to address slowly is the result of the pandemic in 2009, the influenza pandemic. This actually addressed both human and animal health. 70% of the emerging and re-emerging diseases or infections are actually coming or originating from animal health. This is one of the reasons why we're trying to collaborate and strengthen that relationship between the animal health and human health diagnostic services. Our labs in the Pacific are so diverse that the sizes of our countries vary, and likewise the human resources in the laboratories. We range from a 1-man lab to an over-100 man lab, so the issue we want to address is urgent needs and also allowing progress in terms of when there's no capacity referring the samples, both in animal and human health labs.

MARY BAINES: So how do you implement these improvements?

SE: Within the LabNet network, we have a working party that actually addresses lab issues at a regional level. A basic part of this is that over the years we've had regional partners that have actually come into the Pacific and provided technical assistance, provided training at their own pace, and their own initiatives, as well. The LabNet working party has utilised seven main regional partners, who are now working closely and working in co-ordination to provide technical assistance, to provide advisory to the countries. We are working very closely now with the WHO, CDC, reference laboratories, training institutes like the Fiji National Institute. So this has given us a better position and a strength to address laboratory issues.

MB: So you're pleased with the improvements made by LabNet since it was established in 2000?

SE: Exactly correct, yes. One of the most important improvements that we've actually obtained from this network is the shipping of biological samples. A decade ago, shipping of biological samples was something that was a dreaded activity within laboratories, and a lot of times technicians or staff in the laboratories would actually hold on to samples because they had very little knowledge of transportation requirements, even the use of dry ice, which is one of the requirements in the packages, was not very clear. And it took a little while before shipping was actually strengthened and put into logistical mechanisms that allows labs to be able to now ship it very confidently.