A big step has been taken to strengthen Africa's health care systems. Officials from 13 African countries, the United States and the World Health Organization Monday launched an effort to ensure the continent has top-quality medical labs.
Better medical labs mean better patient care – and officials say the only way to ensure a laboratory is a good one is to have it accredited.
In other words, certifying that the labs meet international quality control standards.
Meeting in Rwanda's capital, Kigali (7/27-29), African health officials signed off on an accreditation process. The project has the support of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, PEPFAR, WHO's Regional Office for Africa and the US Centers for Disease Control, among others.
Dr. Lee Hilborne calls it a "tremendous leap forward for diagnostic services in Africa."
"There's been a lot of investment in infrastructure in treating patients with HIV/AIDS. And… this is actually… an acknowledgement that the process has matured to the point where in fact countries can think about doing something in a very standard way… as it's recognized at the international level," he says.
Hilborne is past president of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which helped design the program. He says the five-step accreditation process is a roadmap to help medical labs gradually improve conditions.
"If we expected laboratories… to meet those standards immediately – they're going to fail," he says.
International health officials call medical labs the "backbone" of health care systems, conducting tests and research for many deadly diseases.
They say, for example, that sub-Saharan Africa has two million deaths each year from HIV/AIDS, another two million from TB and about one million more from malaria.
Hilborne says the current state of African medical labs varies.
"There are some laboratories that really in fact have already met international accreditation standards. Most of those are at the national level, but… Many of the labs in the district and local laboratories…really are lacking for almost anything in terms of resources," he says.
Taking a global view
He says health conditions in Africa can no longer be viewed in isolation. They're now of international concern.
"We're a global economy. We're a global environment now. And so the diseases that we're seeing in Africa, certainly we're seeing here in the US, in Europe and other countries as well," he says.
Hilborne, who's also a UCLA pathology professor, says many members of the American Society for Clinical Pathology donated their services to the project.
"It's safe to say that my experience, along with that of many of the other volunteers who've been with the organization working on our global health initiative, is it's almost a life-changing experience to be able to give back to the world something that we take for granted," he says.
Rwanda's permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health Agnes Binagwaho says, "We cannot provide high quality of health care without strong laboratories."