Sh2 billion lab stands idle for nearly 2 years

Friday August 4 2017

Prof Fatmahan Atalar, director of Muhas

Prof Fatmahan Atalar, director of Muhas Genetics Laboratory, displays a gadget which is part of equipment at the facility during an interview with The Citizen. Top right is the plaque unveiled by Retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi when he opened the laboratory in December 2015.  PHOTO | GADIOSA LAMTEY 

By Syriacus Buguzi and Gadiosa Lamtey

Dar es Salaam. A state-of-the-art genetic laboratory in Dar es Salaam is idle despite its potential to save millions in  taxpayers’ money  used to send samples abroad for testing. 

The Sh2.4 billion facility, known as  the Muhas Genetics Laboratory (MGL) and housed within the  Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas), has largely been idle since its highly publicised opening by Retired President Ali Hassan Mwinyi in December 2015.

Inquiries by The Citizen have revealed a puzzling reluctance by public health facilities to use the laboratory, whose establishment through funding by a prominent Turkish businessman was meant to fill a critical gap in the public health system that  still lacks highly skilled personnel and modern technology.

A Turkish expert seconded to the MGL to help Tanzanian experts learn how to use and manage the facility has voiced her frustration about the lack of support.

Prof Fatmahan Atalar of Istanbul University told The Citizen that the laboratory may turn into a white elephant if urgent measures are not taken to address the indifference among Tanzanian officials and specialists. She warned that the cost of maintaining the facility in the absence of income-generating operations was becoming a burden to its financiers.

This is happening at a time when Tanzania is still sending genetic samples abroad for testing even as  the government insists on developing local health infrastructure to cut the cost of treatment and diagnosis in foreign countries, mostly India.

Prof Atalar said she tried to raise awareness among specialists at Muhimbili National Hospital (MNH) to encourage them to submit samples for testing at the MGL.  However, her efforts have  yet bear fruit.

“Doctors here don’t seem to trust this facility. We are supposed to serve almost every department—oncology, paediatric, gynaecology and neurology. I have knocked every door and tried to introduce genetics, but doctors are reluctant to make use of it. I don’t understand why,’’ said Prof Atalar.

She added that MNH recently brought  to MGL 14 samples to be tested for human leukocyte antigens (HLA), but the same samples were also sent to India for the same tests. HLA testing is done to determine if there are any antibodies present in a patient expecting organ donation.

“Why spend money twice on the same thing?” queried the professor of genetics at the University of Istanbul, who was seconded to boost MGL so that it could eventually test samples from all over East Africa.

The hi-tech lab was donated by Turkish businessman Ziya Karahan and entrusted to Muhas.

Information from Muhas’ Department of Biochemistry shows that the country’s public hospitals were reluctant to use it, while  Muhas was unable to run it because of  financial constraints.

The lab equipment is worth more than $1 million (Sh2.2 billion), while Muhas spent Sh129  to repair the building housing the facility, according to details obtained from the university.

The facility was also meant to be the main centre for research on genetic disorders and the university’s teaching facility as well as a diagnostic centre for patients with genetic disorders related to kidney disease and cancer at various referral health facilities.

Mr Mwinyi played a pivotal role in the establishment of the laboratory, having linked up Muhas and Doctors Worldwide-Turkey (DWWT) and the University of Istanbul to collaborate in medical training programmes.

On the day of the launch, the Muhas vice chancellor, Prof Ephata Kaaya, told the media that the university would oversee the growth of the laboratory to eventually become an independent department.

However, two years since the laboratory was opened, the team of experts running it, led by Prof Atalar, says the facility has yet to meet its objectives due to the reluctance among local specialists at top referral hospitals to send samples for genetic testing.

Reached for comment, the director of clinical support services at MNH, Dr Praxeda Ogweyo, confirmed that the hospital sent samples both to India and MGL with a view to ascertaining the quality of testing at the Dar es Salaam laboratory.

“We later established that results of tests carried out in India matched with those submitted by the genetics laboratory here in Tanzania. We are now making arrangements to agree on how we can start working with the laboratory in the future,’’ Dr Ogweyo told The Citizen.

Prof Atalar said Muhas had to pay for reagents used at MGL, but it was unable to do so.

“Without those (reagents) you cannot do anything with those machines,’’ she said. I once spent about $68,000 (Sh140 million) from my own pocket to buy reagents.  I was promised that I would be refunded, but I have yet to receive a penny,’’ she  said.

Reached for comment,the head of the Biochemistry Department, Dr Francis Dida, admitted that it was a challenge for the university to run some programmes because of financial constraints,  but added that measures were being taken to address the situation.