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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010

Hawaii lab signs up to do flu tests for Pacific islands

By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Remie Gose, left, a microbiologist at the state Department of Health lab, and assistant Gloria Raymundo demonstrate an automated system that prepares batches of flu specimens for analysis in a separate machine.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Chris Whelen

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PEARL CITY The Hawai'i State Laboratory will test up to 4,800 suspected flu specimens from six Pacific island nations and territories as part of a one-year contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Association of Public Health Laboratories.

Under the $471,000 contract that went into effect in November, suspected flu specimens from Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Sāmoa, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the Republic of Palau are being sent to Tokyo, Melbourne and the U.S. Mainland, said Michael Epp, executive director of the Pacific Island Health Officers Association.

Each set of islands had its own system for getting specimens tested, Epp said yesterday at a news conference announcing the contract.

"It was often very difficult logistically, very expensive," Epp said. "This really helps consolidate things."

The contract to increase the volume of testing comes during a busy time for the state lab.

Since May, laboratory technicians have tested 26,000 flu specimens a 250 percent increase over what they normally test in a complete year, said Dr. Chris Whelen, the lab's administrator.

Of the flu specimens tested so far, 527 came from American Sāmoa and the Marshall Islands.

"We're able to do this during a pandemic (of the H1N1 virus) without interruption of other public health testing," Whelen said. "We're very proud of that."

Bill Gallo, the CDC's representative in Honolulu, said the new testing program will "be an early-warning system most importantly to protect the people in the region and be a defense against the spread to other parts of the world."

Epp said the agreement between the state lab and islands he represents "is one part of a much larger development process. Over the next two to three years we really anticipate strengthening significantly the surveillance in the lab systems in the Pacific."