The Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI) has been certified to perform yellow fever regional reference lab functions in the Arbovirology department that supports yellow fever diagnostic surveillance. This makes UVRI the only certified Yellow fever reference laboratory in Eastern Africa and the second in the African Region, the other being Institut Pasteur Dakar (IPD) in Senegal.
With this approval, UVRI will implement WHO Regional Reference Laboratory (RRL) functions including; providing yellow fever confirmatory testing for suspected outbreaks; and providing quality control support for national laboratories of Burundi, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.
UVRI will also support surveillance activities, train, build capacity and avail qualified staff to carry out timely tests and manage the RRL. Additionally, upon request from WHO, UVRI will make and administer proficiency testing panels for chosen national laboratories in other countries.
The certification followed an assessment done in May 2017, by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC USA).
According to the Director of UVRI, Dr Potiano Kaleebu the designation of UVRI as a regional reference lab to support yellow fever diagnostic surveillance provides opportunities for training personnel from other countries to set up national laboratories in their countries.
“We have trained lab specialists from Nigeria and Angola and we will continue to train more to build capacity to establish national laboratories’, he said.
He further pointed out that UVRI has the technical and human resource capacity to investigate and confirm yellow fever cases, Chikungunya, Zika Virus, Influenza and other zoonotic diseases.
The capacity of UVRI to provide quick surveillance diagnosis during disease outbreak responses, especially for Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers and other zoonotic diseases, is another area worth noting. “All the samples of alert or suspected cases of Zoonotic diseases and hemorrhagic fevers are taken to UVRI for confirmatory tests and this speeds up the reception of results that inform key decisions”, said Dr Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, the WHO Representative in Uganda.
He further pointed out that, recognizing UVRI as one of the two (2) Yellow fever reference labs will help to address some of the previous challenges such as sample transportation to Institut Pasteur Dakar (IPD) or United States Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC USA) for confirmatory testing.
Previously, there were challenges of sample transportation from Eastern Africa to West Africa or the USA and this was delaying turnaround time of results.
The Senior Principal Research Scientist in the Department of Arbovirology, Emerging and Re-Emerging Viral Infections at UVRI, Dr Julian Lutwama, also noted the beneficial value of UVRI not only to Uganda but to the entire African region.
He says, “Recognizing the laboratory as a standard regional center highlights the great work being done at the UVRI.” Labs at UVRI are both nationally and regionally recognized for the support they render, he notes.
UVRI was established in 1936 as a Yellow Fever research laboratory. Although there had been no confirmed Yellow Fever outbreak in East Africa, there were numerous outbreaks in West Africa. The establishment of UVRI was a precautionary measure in case the outbreaks crossed to East Africa.
In 1939, Uganda was hit by its first Yellow Fever outbreak. The already established UVRI was tasked with running investigative tests on collected Yellow Fever samples which would then be sent to Institut Pasteur Dakar, in Senegal, for confirmation.
In subsequent years, Uganda was hit by six (6) other Yellow Fever outbreaks, the last one being in 2016 where there were six (6) confirmed cases. Four (4) were in Masaka district, one (1) in Kalangala and another in Rukungiri district. The cases were tested and confirmed at the Uganda Virus Research Institute in Entebbe, Uganda.
Dr Pontiano Kaleebu says, “The prior establishment of UVRI came as a ‘blessing’. It was able to carry out investigative tests on collected samples and send them to Institut Pasteur Dakar for confirmatory testing.”
Since 1939, Uganda has had four (4) other Yellow fever outbreaks in 1940, 1959, 1964, 1972 and 2011. The 2011 outbreak in northern Uganda is by far the country’s largest with 13 confirmed cases.