WITH the increasing number of pandemic outbreaks in the country, Uganda Virus Research Institute (UVRI), Entebbe lacks modern laboratories to arrest the situation. The acting director of UVRI, Dr. Ponsiano Kaleebu, says the poor state of affairs may force the World Health Organisation (WHO) to close the centre unless it meets international standards.
The in-charge of influenza surveillance project at UVRI, Julius Lutwama, says the National Influenza Centre which was renovated recently at a cost of $700,000 (about sh1.4b) still requires the same amount of money to reach the required standards.
Surveillance for influenza viruses was started at UVRI in the 1960â€™s by WHO. By then, there was little information about the disease in East Africa. After research by WHO, it was established that influenza A and B viruses were present in East Africa and UVRI was designated as the National Influenza Centre in the early 1980s.
The activities of the centre reduced to nil until the highly pathogenic avian influenza surfaced recently.
The bio-safety laboratory-2 which is a joint venture of Makerere University Walter Reed Project (MUWRP) and UVRI cannot handle all cases especially when there is more than one epidemic at ago.
Kaleebu says once an outbreak occurs, the centre needs three to four days to disinfect the place, clean it and prepare chemicals for the new venture.
â€˜We cannot work on two different deadly viruses in the same laboratory for fear of creating a more deadly virus just in case the two viruses are mixed up by mistake,â€ he says.
Officials at UVRI add that although the institute tests and confirms all diseases in the country, it is not given attention by the health ministry. â€
â€œEven the sh1b promised by President Museveni on his visit to UVRI has not been seen,â€ says one of the officials.
Kaleebu further explains that once the necessary laboratories are put in place, they will benefit all aspects of research in diagnosis of new emerging diseases like swine influenza, ebola, marburg and rift valley fever, among others, and not be limited to avian influenza.
Prof. Fred Wabwire, the principal investigator at MUWRP, says epidemics have been taking the country by surprise because of the weak diagnostics, surveillance and monitoring systems.
â€œThe laboratory was renovated to maintain an effective programme of diagnostics and surveillance of vector borne viral infections, to collect data and information on arboviral diseases, ensure prompt recognition and confirmation of disease outbreaks which would enable action to be taken before the disease has affected many people,â€ Wabwire said.
Reports indicate that due to insufficient security, many health workers have in the past been exposed to infectious diseases, with some resulting into death.
Training of staff and lack of vehicles were noted as issues which should be fixed urgently.
â€œImagine someone carrying an ebola sample in a kaveera and using a taxi. What if they get an accident and the virus is let free or someone steals the kaveera?â€ asks Lutwama.
Because the centre cannot handle samples in a safe manner, it suggests samples of various epidemics be handled at the UVRI gate instead of carrying them to the offices where many peopleâ€™s life is exposed to danger.
Recently, a team of 15 MPs from the Social Services Committee visited UVRI to understand why the place required funding, but they discovered it was below international standards and required money urgently.
The MPs visit was prompted by a communication from the Ministry of Health that a loan approved by WHO in 2008 to modernise the laboratories at the institute was about to be cancelled because Parliament had failed to approve it.
UVRI officials say documents for the approval of the loan were submitted to the office of the Prime Minister in December 2008.
Parliamentarians pointed out a â€˜missing information gapâ€™ between the Prime Ministerâ€™s office and Parliament which needed to be checked.
The MP for Buliisa, Stephen Biraahwa, says: â€œThe ministry should prioritise UVRI matters because the country is facing different epidemics.
The legislators also learnt that the medical team which has been screening people for swine flu at Entebbe Airport and Entebbe Hospital abandoned its work over lack of pay.
The 70-member-group stopped working a month ago. â€œWe risked our lives during that risky period, but now that the threat of the disease has decreased, the Government seems not to care about us anymore. Now people just enter the country without any screening,â€ says one of them.
Dr Jackson Amone, the assistant commissioner integrated curative at the Ministry of Health, says the team will be paid once the money is ready.
Meanwhile the director of health services at the Ministry of Health, Dr Kenya Mugisha adds that the Ministry of Health plans to contact WHO and the National Influenza Task Force to reconsider the screening exercise.
â€œWe should look at a review of the best scenario of handling the screening exercise since swine flu has now spread in many countries,â€ he suggests â€œAll border entries need screening teams and it may be expensive for the Ministry.
Some cases of swine flu were reported at Kitabi Seminary in Bushenyi and other isolated areas but they were treated. The health ministry says there is no need for panic.
Epidemics-Virus research institute could close over incapacity