Public Health Preparedness & Response

Public Health Laboratories, Protecting the Health and Safety of the Nation

By Sikha Singh, MHS, Senior Specialist, Laboratory Response Network, APHL

During National Public Health Week, an important message is that public health laboratories support public health–the science of preventing disease, prolonging life and promoting health.  It’s a simple message, but one that is worth reiterating, particularly as economic issues continue to plague the nation.

So what do public health laboratories do? In short, they protect our health. More specifically, public health labs:

  • Protect the public against diseases and other harmful substances. These laboratories have innovative scientists that develop new methods to detect and fight infectious diseases, environmental pollutants and toxins. Remember the 2009 H1N1 pandemic? Public health laboratories tested thousands of specimens from patients and quickly provided results on whether or not a patient had H1N1 or some other form of influenza.
  • Serve as integral members of national networks, such as the CDC’s Laboratory Response Network (LRN) where they prepare for, respond to and recover from all-hazard threats. Think anthrax 2001 – the public health laboratories in the LRN responded, testing thousands of specimens from patients as well as samples collected from the environment, and assuring first responders and the public that it was safe to reopen and enter buildings.
  • Provide results which are the basis for tracking disease in populations as well as providing medical treatment. Did someone say, “E. coli in spinach” or “Salmonella in peanut butter?” Public health laboratories tested numerous samples and, working in collaboration with epidemiologists, quickly traced the sources of these pathogens.
  • Screen every newborn baby for certain harmful or potentially fatal disorders.
  • Assure that drinking water is safe.
  • Perform tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
  • Develop public policies to ensure the safety and well being of the public.
  • Monitor safety and quality practices in other laboratories. Some public health laboratories even have regulatory authority and can shut down the operations of laboratories that do not follow requirements.
  • Conduct applied research to develop and implement new technologies in their laboratories and supporting new technologies from federal partners.
  • Provide training and conducting educational outreach to thousands of other laboratories, such as hospitals in their states. The hospitals know where to send newborn samples and other items for specialized testing.
  • Forge national partnerships to ensure the safety and well being of the public. These laboratories build and maintain partnerships to facilitate communications and exchange of information. The current chair of APHL’s Public Health Preparedness and Response Committee, Maureen Sullivan, MPH, stated that she never thought her preparedness and response partner would be carrying a gun. She was referring to her FBI Weapons of Mass Destruction Coordinator in Minnesota.

Public health laboratories keep the public healthy by juggling all of these functions, including disease surveillance and detection, newborn screening, emergency response, identification of emerging diseases and environmental testing. We are fortunate that these versatile and vigilant institutions have, thus far, managed to perform so effectively.

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