Africa: Commonwealth and Public Health England to Strengthen Public Health Laboratories

press release

Initiative centres on the problems of anti-microbial resistance, an issue of growing international concern

The Commonwealth and Public Health England (PHE) have joined forces to strengthen public health laboratories in low and middle-income Commonwealth countries through a twinning and partnership initiative to share expertise and knowledge. The initiative centres on the problems of anti-microbial resistance, an issue of growing international concern.

The initiative is focusing initially on the twinning of PHE with a small number of Commonwealth countries including Seychelles, Sierra Leone and Trinidad and Tobago (through the Caribbean Public Health Association, CARPHA, and linking to other countries in that region).

The CARPHA twinning arrangement also involves Canada, and interest in the initiative has been shown by other countries including Singapore and South Africa.

Many low and middle-income countries in the Commonwealth have under-developed public health laboratory services, which are regularly challenged by a number of infectious diseases associated with poverty.

As a result, they often have limited capacity to effectively diagnose and treat people, and to monitor the spread of diseases.

The Commonwealth is using its convening power to support sustainable partnerships between PHE and public health services in different Commonwealth countries and regions.

Public health laboratories will benefit as reliable data and information is provided to enable decision-makers to properly allocate resources and address public health concerns.

Professor Anthony Kessel, Director of International Public Health at PHE said: "Antimicrobial resistance is a global issue and will require a global response to tackle it.

The UK is spearheading a range of activities in response to what is one of the biggest issues in public health of our time.

"This twinning initiative, focused on antimicrobial resistance, will partner high and lower income countries in sharing both expertise and experience and thereby learning from each other.

It is very important that we look not only within our own borders but on an international scale if we are to effectively tackle this problem."

Abdul Aziz Ebrahim, a senior microbiologist at Seychelles Ministry of Health, recently concluded a three-month assignment at PHE, where he focused on identification techniques in clinical microbiology. He was the first professional to partake in the scheme.

"Seychelles has a free health service and medicines, including antibiotics, are imported making them expensive to use," he said. Targeting organisms that cause infections will help cut costs. "I learned techniques to reduce specimens and recover more parasites as well as about rapid diagnostic tests, so that I can start up cheap, easy screening."

Dr Ebrahim said that antibiotics were often blindly used and attitudes needed to change.

"If microbiologists can target real infections, then antimicrobial resistance will be reduced."

As a result of his partnership with PHE (including a placement at the Royal London Hospital), he hopes to use his knowledge to conduct training in Seychelles to benefit more people there.

Antimicrobial resistance will be discussed at the Commonwealth Health Ministers Meeting, which takes place on 18 May in Geneva. The theme for the meeting is 'The Commonwealth Post-2015 Health Agenda: Strengthening Health Policies and Systems.'

The 2014 meeting will offer Commonwealth health ministers a last opportunity to engage collectively with the post-2015 agenda, building onto current debates and conclusions.

Public Health England was established in April 2013 to improve health and wellbeing and reduce health inequalities.

Its expertise in the surveillance of infectious diseases and ability to provide specialist advice to the government on national and international risks to health will be valuable aspects of this partnership initiative.

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