Ways That Public Health Laboratories Fight Disease Daily

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Public health laboratories help protect the public against disease and biological threats, and are often the first line of defense in identifying new health hazards.How do public health laboratories operate, and what kind of tasks do they perform on an everyday level?

What They Are

Whether working for federal or local governments, public health laboratories analyze and investigate health threats ranging from Ebola to genetic disorders, to radiological contaminants, or bioterrorism attempts. Staffed by highly trained scientists, PHLs use front-line medical equipment to provide services that are unavailable or cost-prohibitive when performed elsewhere.

PHLs are the most important part of a strategically located national laboratory network that collaborates closely with the CDC and other federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration, the FBI, and the Department of Homeland Security. This lab network is on-call round the clock to respond to chemical spills, new disease strains, foodborne illnesses, natural disasters, and other health emergencies.

Every state and territory—including Washington D.C.—has a central PHL, and most states also support local PHLs ranging in size from large city labs to smaller community facilities.

What They Do

The vast majority of daily work performed by a typical public health laboratory involves testing. Testing must be completed quickly and accurately, as the results can help healthcare providers and officials make potentially life-saving decisions. When someone mails an envelope full of unidentified white powder, for instance, a PHL can determine if it’s something harmless like baking soda, or more a sinister substance, like anthrax.  If a group of hospital patients starts exhibiting the same severe, unusual symptoms, a lab determines whether it is a deadly virus, and whether that virus is new, or known and treatable. When a child picks up a squirrel and gets bitten, a PHL can quickly discover whether or not he needs a rabies shot, and whether rabies has made a local resurgence.

Hurricanes, floods, and sudden epidemics all call on the laboratory for emergency response, which involves a huge need for increased testing plus maintaining all regular laboratory services. Babies keep being born, even during flood and fire.

What They Specialize In

#1 Newborn Screening: Four million babies are born the US each year, and PHLs are responsible for screening 97% of them for possible genetic and metabolic disorders. These disorders must be treated soon after birth to prevent lifelong disability or death. Over 12,000 newborns are saved annually by public health labs and/or their affiliates.

#2 Food Safety: Labs monitor for foodborne pathogen outbreaks through a national and global network called PulseNet. By comparing the DNA fingerprinting of foodborne illnesses, they can identify patterns case-to-case and identify the source of the outbreak and halt it quickly before more people fall ill.

#3 Emergency Response: Emergencies requiring lab work include terrorist attacks, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and accidents involving hazardous chemicals or materials. PHLs form the core of the national laboratory network dedicated to emergency response, known as the Laboratory Response Network.

#4 Environmental Health: PHLs routinely measure chemical, biological, or radioactive contaminants in water, air, and soil. They also test human tissue for levels of harmful chemicals and fluids to determine whether potentially hazardous environmental exposure is taking place.