Most of the people living with HIV/AIDS are in sub-Saharan Africa. As a result, there’s a growing demand for high quality laboratories that can quickly detect and track the disease. A U.S.-based company is working with PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, to ensure that African labs meet the highest standards.
Besides learning whether a person is infected with HIV, the AIDS virus, it’s also important to know how far the infection has progressed. In other words, what is the status of a person’s immune system and is it strong enough to fend off opportunistic infections.
That’s where medical laboratories play a major role. But depending on the training and equipment available, those labs may not be able to report quickly or accurately. What’s more, lab workers themselves may be at risk of infection.
It’s a major reason why PEPFAR has formed a partnership with BD, a medical tech firm headquartered in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Krista Thompson is BD’s vice-president and general manager for global health.
“BD is a medical technology company. We’ve been in business for 112 years and we’re a leader in medical supplies, such as syringes and blood collection supplies and also a wide range of diagnostics, from things used for researchers to microbiology testing equipment to use in microbiology laboratories,” she says.
To calculate how advanced HIV infection might be, labs take blood tests and measure the number of CD-4 immune cells. If their number is too low, the patient’s immune system has collapsed.
“We have partnered with PEPFAR first on a laboratory strengthening program. So we actually are the largest manufacturer of CD-4 testing equipment. And that is what is used to monitor HIV/AIDS patients’ immune status. So you know whether to put them on antiretroviral drugs or not,” she says.
Thompson says high quality laboratories are essential in the effort to treat HIV/AIDS.
“It’s very important that the laboratories keep pace with the drugs that are being rolled out. If you’re sick, you often have a test to determine what drug you need. And then to know whether that drug is working or not, you also get testing,” she says.
Much of the quality training is done by BD volunteers, like Calin Yuan, who’s a product course developer.
“I just thought it would be an incredible opportunity. I mean I had never been to Africa before. And so when this opportunity came up at work, I just was thrilled,” she says.
She says it was a chance to use her biotechnology skills to train Ugandan lab technicians that perform testing for HIV patients.
Yuan worked with lab techs on the latest testing equipment and procedures, as well as record keeping.
“The reaction was phenomenal in that the lab technicians that we trained were such incredible learners. It was really eye opening because typically you may not find that type of enthusiasm when you’re teaching a course on quality management in the U.S.,” she says.
The 5 year, $18 million PEPFAR/BD partnership calls for training in up to eight Africa countries. So far, that’s been done in Uganda, South Africa and Mozambique. Training is in its early stages in Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.