Hamilton, Ont. - The threat of West Nile virus is complicating a tough situation for Canada's medical laboratories that already face a shortage of medical laboratory technologists.
Since it first surfaced in North America nearly four years ago, West Nile virus has created a "tremendous burden on labs" according to Harvey Artsob, chief of zoonotic diseases at Health Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg.
"It is time consuming and laborious," says Dr. Artsob referring to the many kinds of animal and human tests required in monitoring the spread of West Nile virus. "But the pay-off is that eventually we will be able to create an index to inform people of the level of risk they face at different times during the summer."
Last year, national surveillance for the virus involved numerous laboratory tests: laboratory professionals scrutinized 17,000 mosquito pools and tissues of thousands of birds and horses.
Meanwhile, experts estimate that as many as 1,000 Canadians got sick with the virus last year, nearly half of whom had two levels of complex blood tests done by provincial and federal labs.
This year, most provincial labs will be equipped to accept bird tissues and perform the preliminary human blood test to diagnose West Nile virus. On May 8, provincial governments in Ontario and Nova Scotia announced additional funding for laboratory testing for West Nile.
But continued progress in containing the threat of West Nile virus hinges on a steady supply of qualified laboratory professionals in the future. And Tom Stowe, president of the Canadian Society for Medical Laboratory Science (CSMLS) says that supply is already strained.
Canada is already facing a serious shortage of medical laboratory technologists. Half of Canada's medical laboratory technologists will be eligible to retire within the next 13 years according to CSMLS studies.
"West Nile virus is just the newest pressure on the system," Mr. Stowe says. "As the shortage worsens, patients will wait longer for laboratory test results, such as Pap tests, that affect their future health and peace of mind."
Throughout the '90s, provincial governments reduced the number of medical laboratory training programs resulting in fewer technologists graduating every year. This happened at the same time that Canada's aging population spurred demand for more medical tests. It's estimated that a physician makes 85 per cent of treatment and diagnosis decisions based on the results of medical laboratory tests.
"In order to maintain the integrity of Canada's medical laboratory testing,
the provincial education and health ministries need to commit more dollars
to fund training," says Mr. Stowe. "Only with proper investment in the training of laboratory technologists - including funding of essential clinical experience - can Canada expect to meet the challenge of West Nile virus and the host of other emerging health threats," he says.
CSMLS is the national certifying body for medical laboratory technologists and assistants, and a voluntary professional association for medical laboratory
professionals - Canada's third largest group of health care providers.