Pakistani medical labs lax on biosafety, survey finds

A new survey finds poor bisoafety standards in Pakistan labs. Copyright: CIMMYT/Flickr

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[KARACHI] Medical laboratories and diagnostic facilities in Pakistan’s Karachi city are not following biosafety protocols and their personnel lack training, a new survey has found.

Preliminary results of the survey, conducted by the Jinnah University for Women (JUW), Karachi University, and the Biosafety Association of Pakistan, in collaboration with the Biosecurity Engagement Programme of the US, were released last month (7 January).

Shazia Tabassum, survey leader and chairperson of the microbiology department at JUW, told SciDev.Net  that though the survey was limited to Karachi, the biosafety situation in other areas of Pakistan could be worse.

Shahana Urooj Kazmi, pro vice-chancellor of Karachi University and member of the survey team, explained that unlike in Karachi — Pakistan’s largest city with qualified manpower and infrastructure — pathological labs in most remote areas of Pakistan were run by unqualified people.

The survey recommended mass awareness programmes on ethical and biosafety issues in diagnostic labs and blood banks in public and private hospitals as remedy. Kazmi suggested that Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC) could help launch such programmes.

The Karachi study revealed that just eight per cent of the 250 surveyed facilities had biosafety cabinets (special airtight glass cabinets that isolate hazardous material) and sound waste management plans. Few of the lab workers were immunised against the infectious pathogens they handled.

Also, only 3.2 per cent of workers had received appropriate training on risks from working with disease-causing pathogen samples, and just nine per cent of the labs used disposable syringes.

The survey found 38 per cent of lab workers using oral pipettes (short, thin glass tubes) to transfer samples of human fluids such as blood, and 46 per cent of workers not using personal protective equipment. 

Most of the survey participants were unfamiliar with the different types of recommended facemasks, and were unable to distinguish between polyethylene, surgical and examination gloves.

"There are some 2,000 pathological labs in Karachi alone, and few of them have workers with biosafety training. Only microbiologists know how to handle pathogens and micro-organisms, but there is no job for them in the labs," Kazmi added.

Kazmi said there was an urgent need for strict laws to regulate blood banks and diagnostic labs in Pakistan. 

Rafiq Khanani, head of the pathology department at Dow International Medical College, Karachi, said medical waste was not decontaminated, as required, before being disposed off along with ordinary garbage.                        

Khanani cited an earlier study conducted on a group of 250 Afghan children who worked as garbage collectors, which found 27 per cent of them infected with hepatitis C and another 12 per cent with hepatitis B viruses.