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How the Medical Laboratory Reacts to an Epidemic

November 12, 2014

Laboratory EpidemicThe recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in Western Africa has brought healthcare workers and their extraordinary jobs into the global spotlight. We saw the speed at which doctors and nurses hurried to treat patients, and research labs around the world were quick to accelerate their search for a cure. Many of us might be curious to know just how research labs react to the outbreak of an epidemic, what measures are taken and how scientists and doctors finalize a treatment. To understand the role somebody with medical laboratory training takes on in the face of an epidemic, we must look back at examples from recent history.

Historical Reactions

In the case of domestic infectious disease, health officials have a duty to monitor and detect health events, and perform outbreak investigation to find the source of the illness. This will often involve testing by medical laboratory specialists, followed by the isolation and treatment of any infected patients. After the SARS outbreak in Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada Act came into effect, which promoted Canadian innovation and leadership in the face of infectious outbreaks. Laboratory liaison officers were placed in various laboratories to increase their capacity, and many more epidemiologists were trained to study diseases and their outbreak patterns.

Mobile Laboratories

Mobile laboratories are a modern healthcare invention, and are currently being used by Canadian health organizations in West Africa. Professionals who have undergone dental assistant training at a dental school will sometimes work with organizations to set up mobile clinics in rural areas around the world to teach oral hygiene. Utilizing this same idea, a mobile laboratory travels to remote areas to study disease outbreaks and work toward a cure. In West Africa, mobile lab teams are being used to perform tests such as how diseases are transmitted and the effectiveness of infection prevention procedures at West African healthcare centers. The main benefit of a mobile lab is that it can easily move wherever the World Health Organization (WHO) requires its services, acting as a fast and efficient research hub.

Testing and Diagnosis

In Winnipeg, the National Microbiology Lab is the site of the most promising Ebola vaccine developments. The building includes a Level 4 lab, which is a high containment space used for scientists to work on the world’s deadliest pathogens. The lab recently donated 1,000 vials of a potential Ebola vaccine to WHO, which will go through human clinical trials to prove it is safe before being administered to the public. Trials will determine if the vaccine works, and if so, then how much or how little is needed to cure a human. Scientists are predicting that the vaccine may require two doses, one for curing Ebola and one as a booster. The medical laboratory is always on a time crunch, so remaining ethical and efficient are two large concerns when undergoing experimental testing, especially in the case of an epidemic.

In what type of lab do you see yourself working as an assistant technician?

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