Uganda has opened up its own laboratory with the capacity and facilities to test and detect influenza viruses, instead of sending samples abroad for testing as has been the case. The National Influenza Centre Laboratory, which was commissioned by the Minister of State for Primary Healthcare, James Kakooza, at the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, will enhance surveillance of influenza and influenza-like viruses in humans, animals and birds in Uganda.
The H1N1 virus, commonly known as swine flu, and H5N1 avian influenza virus, which is termed bird flu, have been a major threat to Uganda and the world, killing over 100 people.
The laboratory will provide the equipment and training necessary to enable researchers analyse influenza samples.
“When you look at the disease burden today, it is important to consider research on emerging disease burdens. We need mechanisms of supporting scientists to continue research because new viruses keep emerging that are a threat to the human population,” Kakooza says.
The upgrade of the laboratory was supported by the U.S Department of Defence’s Global Emerging Infections Surveillance and Response System, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organisation, and the US Agency for International Development.
Because viruses spread so fast globally, Uganda could not afford to wait for weeks or even months while samples are being verified. Swine flu, which broke out in Mexico in April 2009, made its way to Uganda within only two months.
It was at this laboratory that nine cases in Uganda were confirmed. Other threats have been bird flu, Marburg, Ebola and Polio.
“Now we don’t have to send samples to the US, they can be tested in Uganda as well as continuous surveillance for any new viruses around the country,” Kakooza said.
According to Dr. Pontiano Kaleebu, acting Director of the Uganda Virus Research Institute, surveillance for influenza viruses started at UVRI in the 1960s by the World Health Organisation team, but at the time there was scratchy information about the influenza in Uganda.
UVRI was then a designated National Influenza Centre. But in the 1980s and 90s, the activities of the National Influenza Centre were reduced almost to nil, until a decision was reached to reopen because of the re-emerging cases of influenza viruses. The NIC has so far tested 2,700 influenza samples with a positive rate of about 15% for either H1N1 virus, or the H5N1 virus.
It has also been involved in the investigations and control of Ebola and Marburg outbreaks in the country.
“It became necessary to have more space for all of these activities and today we witness the handing over and official opening of the renovated laboratories,” Kaleebu said.