Laboratory technicians of the company Icon Genetics prepare proteines from Tobacco plants (Nicotiana benthamiana) for weighing in a laboratory in Halle, August 14, 2014.

Sounds an innuendo, the neglected scientist is the backbone of modern health practice. Call him the medical laboratory scientist, the medical laboratory technologist, the biomedical scientist, the biomedical laboratory scientist, the medical laboratory technician and so many others depending on the part of the world where you find yourself. The scientist work to ensure patients are accorded the right treatment and/or management of all and every medical condition.

Today, world over, the scientist day is being commemorated under the theme, “Antibiotic Resistance – Biomedical Laboratory Scientists Respond to the Global Threat”. With the emergence of new strains of microorganisms, the world battles an era were health professionals would look on helplessly whilst lives are being lost. The emergence of colistin resistant E. coli (superbugs), Methicilin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), resistant Microbacterium among numerous other relapses in disease treatment due to therapeutic failures is a cause of concern for all citizens of our globe.

Unlike in other parts of the world such as Canada and the United Kingdom, Ghana and many of its compatriots in Africa are battling with who and what really the scientist is and does.

The proper placement and utilization of the African medical laboratory scientist could revolutionized the health delivery to its people. Again and again, in the early 1970’s a testimony is told of how the African scientist in Nigeria was used to combat the spread of yellow fever virus on the continent. The massive production of yellow fever vaccines in the most populous African nation and its distribution to neighbouring countries was the hallmark for fighting that infectious disease on the continent.

Today, not a trace of the laboratory facility that engineered this fight can be found. With parasitic infections almost being a thing of the past in most developed nations of the world, neglected tropical diseases (NTD’s) such as schitosomiasis, leishmaniasis are subjects of talks at global conferences on Africa. Malaria continues to devour the lives of many of our under five year old along with our pregnant women. The continent still battles with frequent sporadic outbreaks of cholera and meningitis. At the height of the redundant medical laboratory was an epidermic outbreak of Ebola in some west African countries spanning nearly two years and the inability of the African to combat it.

Billions of dollars are spent on the importation of drugs and other vaccines for curative and preventive use on the continent. The health needs of the African people are only heard when there are epidemics of disease outbreaks and international bodies such as the World Health Organisation seekj to bring in aid. The scientists are trained year in year out and made redundant with laboratory facilities in miniature hen coops.

Can the African scientist be empowered to join the fight against the global threat being posed by microbial resistance to antibiotics? What has been the major challenges confronting the medical laboratory practitioner in Africa? What role can the scientist play that the continent is not harnessing?

A quick review of how treatment of diseases is done indicates that the global threat of antibiotic resistance is not stopping anytime soon. Where did we go wrong? The medical laboratory which is the engine of modern medical treatment has been underdeveloped. Medical laboratory has always been a last thing to be considered as part of the construction of health facilities. Attestation can be given to the many bathroom structure laboratories across the country Ghana. In proper treatment of sepsis or bacterial infection, the first line is to identify the causative organism and compare among many available drug treatment options, which is effective to a particular patient. The number of medical facilities that have the capacity to carry out this investigation are a countable few with many of the district hospitals, central hospitals, and some tertiary hospitals among those with this lack of capacity. Medical doctors are forced to go by the 18th century “try and error” technique of medical treatment. Why do we have the increasing cases of resistivity? Because there is constant abuse of these antibiotics due to the lack of capacity to diagnose and recommend the proper treatment options.

Basic laboratory equipment such as blood analysers, microscopes, centrifuges are either not available, broken down and/or lack the reagents to run them. And the poor citizens of the continent are subjected to crude means of having to treat or manage their illnesses.
With huge resources spent on the training of medical staff including the scientist, government of many nations especially Ghana lack the political will to address the challenges of these huge profession. Countries such as Ghana and Nigeria continue to have other health professionals claiming headship of the medical laboratory science profession. Key decisions and policy programs that governments need to implement suffer various backlashes because of the claim to headship by medical officers whose services are needed in many parts of the continent. Whilst governments bemoans the doctor-patient ratio as a worry to effective health delivery, governments have turned blind eye on attempts to create artificial shortages by pushing medical officers into administrative positions they have little knowledge in.
It is undeniable that the war must be waged against these tiny creatures, but more energies have been channelled debating who should validate or sign laboratory results when in effect the results to be signed cannot be produced due to the neglect.

It is undisputed that the human resources in the form of scientists available can turn the fortunes of our health delivery system around; they have the seeming capacity to discover active compounds within our rich environment; generate vaccines to eradicate cholera, combat malaria and other NTD’s but continental bodies including governments of the African nations as well as development partners need to play critical role in ensuring the scientist is well utilized, ensure proper supply of laboratory apparatus, create participation in the management of health facilities by medical laboratory professionals. Policies to streamline and make available basic laboratory facilities to the CHIPS compound level must be drawn and implemented.

If Nigeria made it in the 70’s, why have we retrogressed since? The key component of having to attain the levels of standard practice is the maintenance of those practice. The sustainability of every policy approach is critical and one can only sustain it if key players and implementers continue to have interest; which most favours the appointment of people with the interest and expertise to manage the policies and programs.

As the world marks the Biomedical Scientist day, there is a need to pause and reflect on how relevant nations can make use of the scientist to ensure a combat on antibiotic resistance, find solutions to disease outbreaks, stamp out NTD’s and protect the future of the unborn generations.

Medical laboratories must be built with the capacity to diagnose bacterial infections and parasitic infections. Research component must be embedded in the medical diagnostic laboratories to ensure the prompt detection of changing trends in the treatment of diseases as well as present options to counteract any medical crisis.

Maxwell Akonde, MLS(AHPC-G)
Medical Laboratory Scientist and Cofounder Patient Safety Advocacy Africa
Email: [email protected]