Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Expert from Winnipeg lab heading to Congo to help with Ebola outbreak

TORONTO — Canada is sending expert assistance to the Democratic Republic of Congo to help the central African country contain its latest Ebola outbreak.

Allen Grolla, a biologist from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg, is heading for Kinshasa, Dr. Frank Plummer, the lab's scientific director, said Wednesday.

Grolla, who works in the special pathogens program, has had extensive outbreak experience as part of a team manning a portable diagnostic laboratory developed by the Winnipeg group. The small portable lab, which can operate safely under extremely basic conditions, is frequently pressed into service in Ebola and Marburg fever outbreaks by the World Health Organization.

There are still only seven confirmed cases, and the outbreak appears to have peaked, according to the World Health Organization. Given that state of play, the WHO has not asked Winnipeg to send the entire portable lab and a full team to operate it.

But Grolla will be taking a component of the portable lab with him, a loan that will allow the Congolese to do confirmatory testing in their national lab in Kinshasa. Currently the country is sending samples for confirmatory testing to more sophisticated labs in South Africa and Gabon.

"Essentially they haven't had the appropriate containment to work on clinical specimens that are suspect for Ebola or some other viral hemorrhagic fevers," Plummer said from Ottawa.

"So this will give them that capability in Kinshasa so specimens won't have to be sent to South Africa or Gabon."

Being able to do the work in the country will speed up the process of identifying and isolating people who are actually infected with Ebola, one of a group of related viral hemorrhagic fevers.

In the early stages these deadly diseases have symptoms that could be confused with many other conditions. Isolating true patients before they can infect others is key to stopping an outbreak.

South Africa's national laboratory and the lab in Gabon are also sending one expert apiece, WHO spokesperson Gregory Hartl said Wednesday from Geneva.

Helping the Congolese to do their own testing should help build capacity in that country, which has had a number of Ebola and Marburg fever outbreaks over the years.

"It's certainly in WHO's interest to have good diagnostic capacity, laboratory capacity in the region. And it's in the country's interest too. The faster we can get reliable diagnosis, the faster we can react," Hartl said.

"There's certainly a rational for countries like DRC which have had several Ebola outbreaks over the years and many rumoured Ebola outbreaks to have its own diagnostic capacity."

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