During emergencies and in everyday life, labs support public health goals

Clinical laboratory diagnostics advance public health goals in communities across the country every single day. For patients facing diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, kidney disease, prostate and colon cancers, anemia, infections and countless other common health conditions, routine lab tests are often the starting point for monitoring, diagnosing and treating disease.

But our role in public health doesn’t stop there. Commercial labs have a long history of supporting public health needs during emergencies. This is a role we take seriously because when an outbreak occurs, clinical laboratories are at the forefront of emergency responses.

Most recently, the Zika virus outbreak in 2016 demonstrated the essential role commercial labs play during public health emergencies. More than 5,000 symptomatic cases of Zika virus were reported in the continental U.S. in 2016. During the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) released new guidelines for providers caring for pregnant women with possible Zika exposure, recommending that all pregnant women in the United States and U.S. territories be assessed for possible exposure at each prenatal care visit. As the demand for testing quickly grew beyond the capacity of state public health labs, CDC engaged commercial labs to meet the rising public need.

As public and private sector partners reflected on the response to the Zika outbreak, stakeholders identified the need for greater collaboration to prepare for future public health emergencies. In response, CDC and ACLA, along with the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL) and the Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE), established a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to strengthen coordination between private industry and public health agencies, establish clear lines of communication, and clarify and streamline regulatory processes for diagnostic testing in emergencies.

Building on this development, ACLA and several of our members were proud to participate in CDC’s tabletop exercise last month to strengthen communications and diagnostic laboratory surge capacity among public and private sector partners during a public health emergency. The exercise simulated a real-life infectious disease outbreak, requiring participating organizations to put their rapid response plans to the test and identify gaps and potential solutions to guide future preparedness efforts.

The exercise also provided an important opportunity to reflect on the ways in which clinical labs support public health goals. From developing cutting-edge tests to help diagnose a patient in the early stages of disease, to responding to epidemics in coordination with our public health partners, clinical labs continue to lead groundbreaking diagnostic efforts, promoting patient access to lifesaving tests when they need it most.

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