Public health laboratories: What are they and how do they keep us safe?

Q&A with Burton Wilcke, PhD, MS, associate professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and editor of the new APHA Press book “Control of Communicable Diseases Manual: Laboratory Practice.”

Did you know that there are public health laboratories in every state and territory in the U.S.? In many cases there are laboratories at the local, city or regional level too! These laboratories create a nationwide network to protect the public’s health. To help you better understand what public health laboratories do and how they keep us safe, APHA’s Get Ready campaign spoke with Burton Wilcke, PhD, MS, associate professor emeritus at the University of Vermont and editor of the new APHA Press book “Control of Communicable Diseases Manual: Laboratory Practice.”

Can you explain what public health laboratories do?

So the function of public health laboratories may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, based on specific legal mandates, but generally, public health laboratories support communicable disease surveillance, foodborne outbreaks investigations, testing for animal diseases that might affect humans, like rabies, supporting environmental threats, supporting outbreaks of disease like influenza that occur seasonally or responding to emergency public health threats like those associated with intentional release of infectious agents. So that’s just a sampling of what public health laboratories do. 

How important are public health laboratories in preventing infectious disease?

Public health laboratories are critical in preventing infectious diseases. They work closely with their clinical and hospital laboratory partners. They’re part of a national — and in some cases, international — laboratory-based surveillance system for infectious diseases. They help to monitor infectious diseases such as those that are vector-borne, transmitted by mosquitoes and ticks, for example. They provide a direct link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its many different disease monitoring programs, so I consider them to be very important.

Can you give me examples of how laboratories have played a role during an outbreak?

Public health laboratories at the state and local level have been the major source of information regarding outbreaks particularly of foodborne illnesses — a lot of people know about these. Public health laboratories are part of a national system that can assure that the knowledge about an outbreak in one state can be shared across the country in a timely manner to help institute some control measures. Public health laboratories have helped reduce the incidence of disease associated with E. coli found in ground beef, for example. There have been parasitic diseases, one is called cyclosporiasis, which was identified in raspberries. Those are just a couple of examples where public health laboratories played a critical role in containing diseases. Another one that people might obviously recall is public health laboratories played a role in the containing and testing for the Ebola virus when it was a potential threat to individuals in the U.S.

Tell me about your book. What’s it about? What sort of topics does it cover?

So the publication that I’m working on and moving towards completion is “Control of Communicable Diseases Manual: Laboratory Practice.” And this book, which is referred to as “CCDM: Laboratory Practice,” is intended to complement the existing “CCDM” publication that APHA has put out now for 100 years. So the “CCDM” practice book focuses on the unique role that laboratories play in the surveillance, detection, control and prevention of disease. It focuses on what kind of laboratory infrastructure is required, what kinds of skills laboratory scientists need and what else is necessary to support a laboratory system. But in turn, supports communicable disease control. Some components of the laboratory system included and focused on in this publication include a focus on safety, a focus on quality assurance and a focus on the ability to quickly report disease findings to disease control efforts.
Why is this book important? Why is it coming out now?

“CCDM” has, as I said, been around for over 100 years, and that’s a resource that covers the critical role of health and professionals like epidemiologists and other disease control experts, but hasn’t really laid out the important roles of laboratories and laboratory scientists play in support of disease control and prevention — and this publication will fill that void.

How will public health workers use it? How does it keep members of the general public safe?

Laboratories, laboratory scientists, epidemiologist and other individuals who are engaged in this area must fully appreciate the critical role that laboratories play in communicable disease control. This publication will help elevate the roles of laboratories, it will…help laboratory leaders decide what area of testing they should be engaged with. It will help them be prepared for events that may be unanticipated, or outbreaks that require laboratory support.

To the extent that it will help do all of these things, it will strengthen the laboratory system, which serves as the underpinning for disease control efforts, and that in turn result in the general public being safer, and better protected from disease threats.

Find out more about “Control of Communicable Diseases Manual: Laboratory Practice” in the APHA Press bookstore.