Strengthening Laboratory Capacity Key to Ending HIV Transmission in Africa

If the world is to achieve the United Nation’s ambitious goal of stopping HIV transmission completely by 2030, more countries need to have robust laboratory capacity with well-trained workers.

In support of this goal, The Task Force for Global Health is working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on an array of bio-safety training initiatives to strengthen HIV laboratory capacity in six sub-Saharan African countries.

Led by The Task Force’s Public Health Informatics Institute (PHII), the program is designed to put in place individual safeguards to protect laboratory personnel, as well as the surrounding environment and community.

Comprising a mix of e-learning modules and in-person, facilitator-led sessions, the training program focuses on lab technicians and support staff in Mozambique, Uganda, Swaziland, Kenya, Tanzania, and Malawi. The next phase, expected to launch this fall, will target lab-based health professionals in these countries.

PHII Director Vivian Singletary, MBA, JM, says that bio-safety training ensures that lab workers who are at the frontlines of battling the disease remain healthy. “It’s a deadly virus, and we need to ensure that workers are getting the education and training they need to take maximum precautions when handling patient samples.”

The UN plan to end HIV transmission relies on three main steps – most of which depend on augmented lab capacity in low- and middle-income countries. The first step is testing people at risk of HIV infection. The second is getting people who test HIV-positive onto antiretroviral (ARV) treatment. The third step is to suppress viral levels in treated people to undetectable levels to decrease the risk of transmission and disease progression.

Patrick O’Carroll, MD, MPH, who heads The Task Force’s health systems strengthening sector, says PHII’s work to enhance laboratory capacity for HIV is important to reducing the burden of the disease in sub-Saharan Africa. “We need accurate, reliable and timely test results to understand disease prevalence, monitor treatment efficacy, and spot and control outbreaks before they can spread. Without laboratory capacity, we are flying blind.”

The bio-safety trainings are especially timely because many of the labs have acquired new viral load testing equipment. Viral load is the term used to describe the amount of HIV in a patient’s blood. Viral load testing — also known as PCR testing — is expensive but remains one of the most accurate ways to measure a patient’s response to treatment. The test has proven to be especially beneficial for testing infants under 18 months of age, who have a high fatality rate from AIDS if the infection goes undetected.

Sub-Saharan Africa is the region of the world most burdened by HIV with one out of every 25 adults living with the disease, according to the World Health Organization. Since the first cases of HIV were reported in 1981, 78 million people have become infected with HIV and 35 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

The laboratory initiative is supported by The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) that was enacted in 2003 to scale up global HIV prevention and control efforts.


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