As the most modern health facility in Guyana, the National Public Health Reference Laboratory, strategically situated at the corner of Thomas and New Market Streets, has been breaking new ground in the area of laboratory testing over the past year.
Tests the likes of Deoxyribonucleic Acid-Polymerase (DNA) and other virology tests that were previously unheard of here, are being done with ease at the facility even as plans are apace to push the capabilities of the facility to a higher level of proficiency.
After three years of meticulous construction and a process of installation, the Reference Centre was completed and was handed over to the Ministry of Health on July 3, last year.
And it was with much pomp and fanfare that celebration was made to mark its first year of existence earlier this month.
At a cost of more than US$4 M the facility was constructed with funding from the United States Government through the PEPFAR initiative with support from the Centre for Diseases Control (CDC).
It was anticipated that the facility would be one that was sophisticated in its complexity, advanced in technology and one with equipment and the capacity to store specimen over the long term.
And indeed the facility is living up to all of its expectations one year later, according to its Director, Dr Colin Roach. He emphasised that the support from both the US and local governments was exceptional, adding that the facility is an example of how the political will of governments can be very effective.
“From our first anniversary celebration the response that we got from the US Government was that they were proud about what is happening. We have not received any negative comments and CDC and the US Embassy have been extremely supportive of us.”
“We have been able to deliver most of our mandate in terms of the PEPFAR programme. We have lived up to the expectations that is to ensure that CD4 tests are accessible; to ensure that we have viral load capacity for patients; to ensure we do early infant diagnosis; to ensure that the lab was furnished and equipped; to ensure that it was staffed. And I think that is a record that we have done all this in one year.”
According to Dr Roach, the facility, which is staffed by 29 well-trained personnel, is able to conduct tests such as Deoxyribonucleic Acid-Polymerase Chain Reaction (DNA-PCR) for HIV purposes. And the dedicated staffers, he noted, have been the driving force of the entity.
The prestigious laboratory which has been deemed a “Centre of Excellence” by Health Minister Dr Leslie Ramsammy, has within its confines seven departments including Haematology, Chemistry, Tuberculosis, Quality Assurance, Surveillance and Bacteriology.
And according to Dr Roach, “We are supposed to be better than all of the rest; we are a special laboratory not like the regular labs.”
The capabilities of the Reference Centre stand out as it is able to process thousands of samples on a monthly basis with an average of 600 samples from the TB suites, 700 from the CD4 Suites, and about 1,000 from Serology Suites.
He explained that the idea behind the introduction of such a facility is that it not only engage in doing routine tests but also rather specialised tasks. And these he said includes DNA-PCR and Ribonucleic acid (RNA) PCR which are completely new to Guyana.
He explained that the DNA-PCR is the test used to diagnosis babies who are born from HIV positive mothers. And this is a breakthrough for the public health system since according to Dr Roach in the past such diagnosis could have only been confirmed until 18 months had elapsed.
And with the RNA-PCR the viral load measurement, that is the measure of the severity of an infection, lab personnel are able to monitor HIV patients that are on Anti-Retroviral (ARV).
All results readings that emanate from the sophisticated machines are read in totality by lab staffers.
However, with its PCR suites, Dr Roach revealed that the testing capacity of the laboratory is poised for significant expansion. “We will be able to do many other things and some of those would be the Swine Flu (H1N1 virus). We just have to get a few other little things.
“This is because there is not one reagent doing everything each tests are unique so we have to build around the capacity we now have.”
The Director was, however, unable to give a timeline for the introduction of such tests given the substantial cost factor. He noted though that the Ministry of Health is working along with the Pan American Health Organisation to bring this initiative to fruition.
And in order to be able to operate optimally, Dr Roach said that he along with the Head of Department for the TB Suites, Ms Sherry George, were able to benefit from a period of exposure to the North Carolina State Laboratory.
“I shadowed the Director for that Lab and I also rotated in the PCR suites and we had training in quality assurance and Lab safety. My colleague, she specifically went there to look at the TB Suites because we want to increase our diagnostic capacity here for TB.”
Currently in the area of TB, the lab is able to undertake AFB smears and culture and according to Dr Roach there are plans to do TB drug sensitivity testing as well.
He disclosed that other staffers have also benefited from additional training conducted by the Institute for Human Virology of Maryland, United States.
The laboratory is, however, in the process of receiving validation and has in fact received one validation from CDC in Altanta, USA. Another is expected from Canada shortly, Dr Roach disclosed.
He is confident that the lab will stand the tests of time as its foundation was created with the unwavering support of committed donors including that of the United States Government, the various departments of the Ministry of Health, PAHO, among others.
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