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Developing Laboratory Systems and Infrastructure for HIV Scale-Up: A Tool for Health Systems Strengthening in Resource-Limited Settings

Justman, Jessica E MD; Koblavi-Deme, Stephania PhD; Tanuri, Amilcar MD, PhD; Goldberg, Allison BA; Gonzalez, Luis Felipe MD, PhD; Gwynn, Charon R PhD

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JAIDS Journal of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndromes: November 2009 - Volume 52 - Issue - p S30-S33
doi: 10.1097/QAI.0b013e3181bbc9f5
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Over the past decade, the role of clinical laboratory strengthening as a critical component of the global response to the HIV epidemic has been increasingly recognized. Accurate and timely clinical laboratory services permit earlier HIV diagnosis, staging, identification of adverse drug events and opportunistic infections, and monitoring response to therapy. The rapid scale-up of HIV care and treatment in many resource-limited settings, however, has overwhelmed public health laboratory services already burdened with human resource shortages, an aging and inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of quality systems. Although there has been remarkable progress in the development of assays suited to low-resource settings, including point-of-care (POC) tests, weak sample transportation and laboratory management systems have left many laboratories unable to support HIV clinical services with timely, consistent, and reliable service.

The integration of HIV-related laboratory services within HIV care and treatment clinical programs is an important approach to closing this gap. There is also growing appreciation of the opportunity to use HIV-related laboratory strengthening as a means to strengthen health systems in general. The World Health Organization (WHO) has defined health systems as “all organizations, people and actions whose primary intent is to promote, restore, or maintain health”1 and has called for national public health laboratories to be seen as part of the broader national health system.2 To meet this objective, WHO urged member states to develop comprehensive national laboratory policies and formulate national strategic plans for tiered laboratory networks (Fig. 1, Table 1), with basic laboratory services at peripheral clinical sites and more sophisticated laboratory assays at centralized reference laboratories.

Tiered Laboratory System
The tiered, integrated laboratory network.

The United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has also recently broadened its approach to include laboratory systems strengthening. Although PEPFAR I focused on providing basic lab services needed for HIV diagnosis and care, PEPFAR II considers broader aspects such as quality management systems, equipment maintenance, training, and infrastructure.3 In view of these broader efforts, we describe ongoing efforts to strengthen laboratory systems in support of both HIV scale-up and overall health systems strengthening.


The lack of adequately trained personnel is often the most significant rate-limiting step in providing quality laboratory services and clinical services in resource-limited settings. In Nigeria, south-to-south workshops have been successfully used to build laboratory capacity. These workshops are conducted at a regional training laboratory in Africa rather than in the United States or Europe. The training laboratory is usually housed within a tertiary laboratory facility and allows both novice and experienced African laboratory staff to gain practical skills through in-service training without burdensome travel costs and visa requirements. Standardized training guidelines are used to train teams of trainers who in turn train staff from lower-tiered satellite labs in their own networks. Similarly, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently launched the African Center for Integrated Laboratory Training in Johannesburg, South Africa. Preservice training and ongoing site supervision, however, are additional critical components for quality laboratory and clinical services, and both remain a significant challenge in most countries.

Strategies for human capacity development and staff retention apply to laboratory and clinical staff alike and include adequate compensation, training opportunities, and opportunities to participate in research and public health evaluations. The effectiveness of salary increases on retention in laboratories has not yet been established, but a pay increase for pharmacists in Botswana, for example, did increase staff retention. In Rwanda, performance-based financing links salary to work quality and volume for health facility workers, including laboratory staff. Improvements in work environment through infrastructure renovation may also boost staff morale and promote retention.


Inadequate space, lack of shelving and files, aging equipment, unreliable water and electrical supply, and frequent stockouts continue to be major infrastructure challenges to reliable and accurate laboratory services. In Ethiopia, however, there has been significant progress in building infrastructure under the National Laboratory Strategic Plan of the Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute (EHNRI). The national reference laboratory at EHNRI and 4 regional hospitals and 6 regional laboratories have been renovated and equipped, expanding the capacity for sophisticated tests such as HIV DNA assays for infant diagnosis of HIV.

Infrastructure also includes procurement and transportation systems. In Rwanda, implementing partners contribute funds to a “common basket,” and the national central purchasing unit (CAMERWA) procures medications and diagnostic reagents and kits, with technical support from USAID's Supply Chain Management System (SCMS). This approach to procurement, along with the use of forecasting tools, results in fewer stockouts.

Transportation systems for samples and results need to reflect laboratory and clinical management systems and the structure of the laboratory network. Challenges include lack of an affordable courier, cold chain requirements, transportation delays, inadequate space for sample storage, and absent or unreliable sample tracking systems-all resulting in lengthy turnaround times. Ideally, a laboratory network blends a centralized laboratory system with a POC system. POC testing for the more frequently used, less complex assays such as HIV rapid testing, hemoglobin, and glucose is increasingly common and reduces the need for transportation of samples and results.

Electrical supply is problematic in some regions, and the use of solar-powered or propane-powered equipment has been an advance. For example, cold chain problems in some regions of Nigeria have been addressed via propane-powered refrigerators. Additional infrastructure challenges include lack of adequate capacity to perform laboratory equipment maintenance and the absence of a standard laboratory inventory system. The need for equipment maintenance is increasingly recognized, however, and many laboratory managers now negotiate maintenance contracts when purchasing equipment.


Although many African countries have a national quality assurance (QA) program to ensure adherence to laboratory service standards and procedures and have participated in an HIV serology QA program, consistent QA is generally lacking in lower-tier laboratories. For example, in a survey conducted in 89 health care facilities (including 29 hospitals and 34 health centers) in the Lake Victoria region of Tanzania,4 only 16 (18%) had standard operating procedures in place, and only 13 (15%) reported equipment calibration systems. There are very few publications of this nature, and additional surveys will be critical for planning how best to meet needs.

In Nigeria, external quality assessments (EQA) are performed for several tests conducted through the AIDS Prevention Initiative in Nigeria. There is also a comprehensive quality management plan that includes strong quality control measures, EQA, and specific training workshops with external quality specialists. The National Institute of Medical Research in Nigeria became certified by the International Organization for Standardization in early 2008, taking an important step toward accreditation. In addition to QA, EQA, and accreditation programs, on-site periodic supervisory visits by trained staff are important to improving laboratory service quality. Moreover, trained clinical and laboratory staff who provide on-site supervision can at the same time promote integrated clinical and laboratory services and further enhance program quality.


Collecting and analyzing program data on specific features or indicators allows countries to monitor progress, assess laboratory systems strengthening, coordinate efforts, and plan future HIV/AIDS activities. Basic laboratory indicators were developed by PEPFAR in 2007 and were recently revised to reflect PEPFAR II goals (Table 2). To allow for more comprehensive program monitoring and evaluation, Columbia University's International Center for AIDS Care and Treatment Programs (ICAP) has developed several data collection modules, including a detailed series of indicators (Table 2) and a standardized assessment tool to assess facility-level characteristics of ICAP-supported laboratories. The indicators will be collected routinely, and summaries of program data are provided through ICAP's Web-based database for access by key stakeholders. The standardized assessments allow for the monitoring of key facility-level characteristics such as type of testing conducted, type of equipment used, equipment maintenance schedule, QA/QC procedures, laboratory accreditations, physical infrastructure status, and supply inventory and procurement status. The implementation of laboratory information systems also strengthens laboratory capacity and permits the use of data for both laboratory and clinical program planning and evaluation. However, in supporting implementation of laboratory information systems, challenges exist, such as the need for sufficient technical expertise to maintain computer systems and allow effective use of laboratory indicator data.

PEPFAR laboratory Indicators and ICAP laboratory Indicators


Too large a variety of laboratory equipment and reagents in a region complicates procurement and equipment maintenance. Recent efforts have therefore focused on harmonization and standardization of the minimum package of supplies, tests, and equipment needed at each level of the laboratory network5,6 (Table 3). In addition, recognition is growing of the need for national laboratory strategic plans to specify lists of commodities and equipment to be used in each country.7

Key Points from the Maputo Declaration on Strengthening of Laboratory Systems (January 2008)6

Implementation of such harmonization plans has begun. In Ethiopia, EHNRI oversees the standardization of laboratory commodities across the tiered laboratory network and works with SCMS to procure reagents, supplies, and equipment. SCMS has seconded staff to 6 regions to procure and monitor the inventory and consumption of laboratory supplies. EHNRI conducts on-site training on equipment maintenance and has hired and trained engineers to provide maintenance to the regions. In addition, SCMS has centralized the process of ordering replacement parts for equipment with a list of frequently required spare parts.


Although some have argued that a disproportionate amount of financial resources are going into the funding of one disease,8 others welcome the opportunity to strengthen health systems overall, including public health laboratory systems.9 To strengthen health systems, public health laboratories that are integrated within clinical programs serving both those with HIV and the general public are critical. Some countries have been more successful in taking steps in this direction. In Tanzania, the Ministry of Health has set up a financing mechanism that allows resources from PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to go into a common basket that supports laboratory services for the general population, including but not limited to those with HIV. Most countries, however, have not yet been able to do this, and innovative approaches, such as partnerships between the private and public health sector, will be needed to achieve international goals such as the Millennium Development Goals. Over time, stronger and more sustainable health care systems will evolve through coordinated transition plans among governments, donors, and partners.


The authors would like to acknowledge the many ministries of health, national reference laboratories, and provincial laboratories, numerous laboratorians engaged in strengthening clinical laboratories. We thank Bereket Hailegiorgis, Juliet Iseniyi, Alaine Nyaruhirira, Thabo Taleng, and Pierre Rugimbanya, among others, for their substantial contributions to ICAP's laboratory program. The authors also thank John Nkengasong, in particular, for his support and encouragement.


1. World Health Organization (WHO). Everybody's Business: Strengthening Health Systems to Improve Health Outcomes. WHO's Framework for Action. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2007. Available at: Accessed June 21, 2009.
2. World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Office for Africa. Strengthening public health laboratory in the WHO-AFRO region: a critical need for disease control [document AFR/RC58/PSC/6]. In: Report of the Programme Subcommittee, Regional Committee for Africa, 58th Session, Brazzaville, Congo, June 10-13, 2008. Geneva, Switzerland: WHO; 2008. Available at: Accessed June 21, 2009.
3. Tom Lantos, Henry J. Hyde United States Global Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria Reauthorization Act of 2008. Public Law 110-293, 122 Stat. 2917 (July 30, 2008), §4. Available at: Accessed July 14, 2009.
4. Mashauri FM, Siza JE, Temu MM, et al. Assessment of quality assurance in HIV testing in health facilities in Lake Victoria zone, Tanzania. Tanzan Health Res Bull. 2007;9:110-114.
5. World Health Organization (WHO), Regional Office for Africa. Report on Consultation on Technical and Operation Recommendations for Clinical Laboratory Testing Harmonization and Standardization: Helping to Expand Sustainable Quality Testing to Improve the Care and Treatment of People Affected by HIV/AIDS, TB, and Malaria; January 22-24, 2008; Maputo, Mozambique. Available at: Accessed June 21, 2009.
6. Maputo Declaration on Strengthening Laboratory Systems. Presented at: Consensus Meeting on Clinical Laboratory Testing Harmonization and Standardization; January 22-24, 2008; Maputo, Mozambique. Available at: Accessed June 21, 2009.
7. Nkengasong JN, Mesele T, Orloff S, et al. Critical role of developing national strategic plans as a guide to strengthen laboratory health systems in resource-poor settings. Am J Clin Pathol. 2009;131:852-857.
8. Halperin D. Putting a plague in perspective. New York Times. January 1, 2008. Available at: Accessed July 12, 2009.
9. El-Sadr WM, Hoos D. The President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief: is the emergency over? N Engl J Med. 2008;359:553-555.

clinical laboratory; health systems strengthening; HIV/AIDS; resource-limited setting

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