June 19, 2022

COVID-19 exposed West Africa’s diagnostic challenges — Lab scientists



By Chioma Obinna

West Africa Medical Laboratory Scientists have said that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the gaps in the sub-region’s healthcare systems and uncovered its diagnostic challenges.

The scientists who gathered at a meeting in Accra, Ghana also said the pandemic has caused West Africa “hugely in mortality, morbidity, social relations, loss of jobs and economic hardships, and driven more people into poverty.”

In a communique issued at the end of CelebrateLAB West Africa 2022 Conference, the annual meeting of medical laboratory professionals, the delegates noted that the initial difficulties with obtaining testing kits and other diagnostics supplies affected the region’s response to the pandemic.

“Additionally, the challenges in securing vaccines at the unset of the vaccine deployment across the world highlighted the need for West Africa to work relentlessly towards achieving self-sufficiency in vaccines, diagnostic kits and materials, and other medical supplies,” they said. Participants noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of laboratory diagnostics in disease surveillance and healthcare outcomes, and acknowledged the critical role Medical Laboratory Professionals have played in building diagnostic and surveillance capacity in Africa during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The communiqué stated that participants commended their involvement in contact tracing, case finding, sampling, specimen transportation and diagnosis of the disease. “The ability to ensure adherence to routine (Standard Operation Procedures (SOPs) and documenting new guidelines for laboratory response during a pandemic is critically for areas such as chain of information, specimen collection and transportation, biosafety, and introduction of new products.”

The communiqué was signed jointly by Conference organiser Candace B. Eastman Chief Executive, Africabio Enterprises, Liberia, Air Cdre Edward Abayomi Akinwale (Rtd.), HUF for the Advancement of Military Medicine, Nigeria and  Dr. Abu Rahamani, President, Ghana Association of Medical Laboratory Scientists, GAMLS, however, stated that the sub-region, like the rest of the world, learnt important lessons from the pandemic and other diseases outbreaks such as the Ebola Virus Disease, Lassa Fever and Dengue Fever among others.

It also urged that the lessons learnt should be applied in critical policy formulation and programmes to strengthen the sub-region’s health systems to combat infectious diseases and future pandemics.

The delegates also urged countries to move fast and put measures in place in readiness for the next pandemic, saying it’s only a matter of time before the world experiences a new disease outbreak after COVID-19, considering the short period it took for the world to move from one pandemic to the other in modern times, compared to such occurrences earlier in history.

According to them, it took just a spate of three to four years between the outbreak of three epidemics (the Spanish Flu, Avian Flu MERS)  and the ongoing  COVID-19  pandemic, unlike older outbreaks which took a longer time between their occurrence.

“Based on the period – January to March – when the world was alerted on Covid-19 and later declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and how countries moved quickly from one case to thousands and millions of cases in a matter of days, countries must move faster to put measures in place in readiness of the next pandemic and epidemic,” the scientists urged.

On vaccine production, the delegates stressed the need for Africa to achieve the African Union target to produce at least 60% of vaccines used in the continent by 2040, as against the 1% vaccine produced in Africa before the  Covid-19 pandemic, to ensure availability of affordable, high quality and accessible vaccines throughout the continent.

The conference thus urged West African governments to build diagnostic and research expertise to meet vaccine manufacturing in Africa for Africa.

To this end, the delegates commended Ghana, Senegal and Rwanda for their partnerships with BioTech for vaccine production and called for wider collaboration by other countries in the sub-region.

The delegates also resolved to support all interventions by governments in the efforts to build local capacity for manufacturing vaccines and other health care products to achieve self-sufficiency in combating infectious diseases in West Africa and to prepare for the next disease outbreak, when it does come.

The communiqué stressed the need to scale up the training of Medical Laboratory Scientists, adding that regulators of Health laboratory science in West Africa such as the Allied Health Professions Council and national medical laboratory professional bodies must work to speed up the process of instituting the licensure examination of graduate professionals, using the Medical Laboratory Science Council of Nigeria template.

Similarly, the delegates called on Health Ministries across the sub-region to engage more professionals to build the diagnostic capacity of public healthcare facilities and to increase the professional-patient ratio saying, it will take another 400 years to achieve the accepted ratio as pertains in developed countries like the United Kingdom at the current rate of training in the sub-region. 

“Training the right number of professionals with the highest level of expertise is essential in preparing West African health systems in readiness for future disease outbreaks. 

training in medical laboratory science must meet international standards such as ISO 15189 and the 12 Quality Essentials of Laboratory practice, and should be tailored to the current demands of the profession, with a structured curriculum that is recognized at the national, regional and international levels. This requires that trainers should be qualified and certified.

The scientists however urged that untrained and unlicensed people should not be allowed to practice in medical laboratories, saying this amounts to promoting quackery. They called for stronger regulations and the setting up of Medical Laboratory Science Directorates at national ministries and regulatory agencies of laboratory science in the sub-region.

The communiqué also announced that the next edition of the conference would hold in Abuja, Nigeria, early in 2023.