The African Society for Laboratory Medicine (ASLM) (www.ASLM.org) announces its biennial conference, ASLM2021, which will take place virtually 15-18 November 2021 with the theme, ‘Responding to Outbreaks Through Resilient Laboratory Systems: Lessons Learnt from the COVID-19 Pandemic’. The conference will be a celebration of ASLM’s 10th anniversary and feature world-renown leaders and cutting-edge research on critical issues facing African laboratories and laboratory professionals today and in the future.
Medical laboratory testing is vital for the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Every day, African laboratory systems must deal with multiple ongoing epidemics and competing health priorities. The frequent new disease outbreaks represent additional challenges in a context of scarce resources.
As explained by conference co-chair Prof Isatta Wurie, ‘The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated the critical importance of diagnostics, while it exposed every weakness in public policies and health response systems, not just in Africa, but across the globe. It also showed that the strong laboratory testing systems many African countries built for routine testing of HIV patients could be shifted to COVID-19 testing.’
While some gaps still need to be addressed, African laboratory systems have made great strides in the last decade. These advances might have helped minimize the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the continent. For example, 10 countries have met or are close to meeting the UNAIDS fast track targets for reducing the HIV epidemic, which would be impossible without laboratory testing. The continent has largely adopted innovative technologies, such as rapid and/or point-of-care testing. Combined with community outreach interventions, those innovations have transformed access to diagnostics for disease such as HIV, malaria and tuberculosis, especially for those in remote regions.
Building on these achievements, Africa demonstrated a well-coordinated scale-up of COVID-19 testing in the initial phase of the pandemic. Some countries in Africa are generating state-of-the-art genomics surveillance data on new variants of the virus, which have guided the COVID-19 vaccine strategy. Slowly but surely, diagnostic tests are being manufactured on the continent, contributing to improved access to testing, better health outcomes, and thriving local economies.
The wealth of best practices, innovation and creativity coming from Africa can uniquely contribute to the design of the improved laboratory and health systems that are needed to respond to the next pandemic while addressing the routine health needs of African populations. The ASLM2021 conference will explore these topics and the critical question: Beyond the damage caused by the pandemic, what have we learnt that will make our laboratory systems stronger?
‘You cannot fix your health system when you need it. You must fix your health system before you need it,’ said Dr. John Nkengasong, Director of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and conference plenary speaker. ‘ASLM2021 will be an excellent venue for an in-depth discussion of the practical steps that must be taken to achieve this, including building capacity for rapid development and production of diagnostics and vaccines on the continent.’
Progress towards this goal will be a focus for the conference. Attendees will discuss new and already known issues for laboratories in Africa, including the threat of emerging pathogens and the need to strengthen and optimize diagnostics services for both routine clinical care and public health emergencies. New approaches and strategies to implement quality management systems in every laboratory, develop a sustainable laboratory workforce and use evidence to optimize laboratory network services will be discussed, among other topics.
‘For ten years ASLM has been the leading voice of the laboratory community in Africa,’ said Mr. Nqobile Ndlovu, Chief Executive Officer of ASLM. ‘We have worked in close partnership with ministries of health, laboratory professionals, diagnostics manufacturers, civil society, scientists, health development donors and implementing partners to develop, implement and improve diagnostic solutions tailored to Africa’s needs.’
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