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[KIGALI] Laboratories from 13 African countries have joined a scheme to improve diagnostic capacity on the continent.

The scheme, to be overseen by the WHO Regional Office for Africa and the US President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, was announced in Kigali, Rwanda last week (27 July).

Laboratories will be assessed based on a five-step process, where they can gain credit for improvement towards full accreditation — rather than the yes/no process used in many developed countries.

Just a handful of African laboratories are accredited and many lack equipment, proper funding, adequate training for lab workers and systematic management of work, detrimentally affecting their ability to diagnose disease.

The 13 countries joining the scheme are Botswana, Cameroon, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia. At least 30 laboratories will be accredited in the first phase.

The move should help Africa to improve diagnosis and monitoring of emerging diseases, a deficiency that has been highlighted by the swine flu — influenza A (H1N1) — pandemic (see Experts highlight lack of swine flu diagnostics).

"Once African laboratories function properly, doctors and nurses will not only get correct diagnoses of new emergent fast-killer diseases but also an indication of when and how to begin treatment," says Lee H. Hilborne, past president of the American Society for Clinical Pathology, which will send volunteers from US laboratories to help with training.

"Of most concern of this move is to enable African laboratories to rapidly detect and diagnose swine flu," Deborah Birx, director of the Global AIDS program at the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will be involved in implementing the programme, told SciDev.Net.

Birx adds that one of the reasons why there are very few A(H1N1) cases on the continent could be because of the lack of capacity of African laboratories to carry out diagnosis.

But Odette Mukabayire, director-general of the Rwanda National Reference Laboratory, says that the H1N1 virus should not be the main focus of laboratories in Africa.

"The African continent is not the main target of the pandemic," she says, stressing that existing diagnostic measures are adequate.