This is an archived article.

March 8, 2007

Visiting scholars from Haiti learn best lab practices at UW

UW Health Sciences/UW Medicine

When Frantz Marc Marthol left Haiti in January and landed in Seattle for the first time, the cold winter weather blanketing the Pacific Northwest was the first of many stark contrasts he’d soon encounter.

“Unfortunately, it was the snow that welcomed us when we arrived,” Marthol recalled with a smile.

Soon after, Marthol and three other visiting Haitians found themselves touring the laboratories of UW Medicine, marveling at the equipment and facilities that differed so drastically from what they’d left behind in Haiti.

Marthol is one of four instructors from Haiti’s two national laboratory schools who are visiting on a three-month UW study tour to learn best practices about building lab capacity. The group arrived on campus Jan. 6 and will return to Haiti March 9, armed with critical information to continue the battle against HIV/AIDS and associated infections. All four will be part of a curriculum working group in Haiti to integrate what they learned at the UW into their lab schools.

The International Training and Education Center on HIV (I-TECH), a global AIDS training group based at the UW and the University of California, San Francisco, sponsored the trip and numerous UW faculty are volunteering their time to teach the visitors about the latest lab technologies and hands-on teaching techniques.

Two of the four instructors — Marthol and Rosa Eugene — teach at the National Laboratory Technology School in the northern Haitian town of Cap Haïtien, and two — Ginette Leandre Louis and Geralda Rejouis Lamothe — are faculty at the other national school in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“We are learning many different things about HIV, immunology, hematology, microbiology, bacteriology and parasitology,” explained Lamothe.

Louis says I-TECH’s support and the instruction from UW faculty volunteers have been invaluable.

“I have learned so much about quality control, quality assurance and standard best practices for laboratories,” Louis said. “This knowledge will really help me in my work at the National Public Health Reference Lab, thanks to I-TECH.”

The group is also witnessing first-hand how a well-functioning laboratory network is crucial to support the diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, lacks sufficient equipment and staff to provide adequate laboratory services in its urban and rural areas. As a result, patients lack access to diagnostic tests for HIV or to tests that monitor response to treatment.

“Without good lab capacity, there’s a bottleneck in providing quality health care to patients with life-threatening illnesses like HIV/AIDS,” said Karen Stephens, a professor in the Department of Laboratory Medicine, who coordinated the study tour.

Part of that bottleneck is a lack of basic supplies, such as petri dishes used in bacteriology to grow cultures.

“There are many tests done in the laboratories here at UW that we could be doing in Haiti, but we lack the materials,” Marthol explained. “We are trying to prepare our laboratory students in Haiti for the work that needs to be done there, but we are working with very limited means.”

I-TECH is working hard to change that, not only through this study tour but also by providing the two schools in Haiti with much-needed supplies and resources. When they return home, all four of the visiting instructors will take with them textbooks and printed materials from online resources courtesy of I-TECH to help build a resource library for their schools. A few months from now, I-TECH plans to purchase teaching equipment for both schools, such as instructional microscopes with multiple eye pieces, laptops and LCD projectors — a promising step forward from the chalk on blackboards that now serves as the sole means of written instruction in both schools.

“As faculty members of their schools, we asked them to give us a ‘wish list’ of what they needed,” said Nancy Puttkammer, the Haiti country program manager at I-TECH. “We’re now reviewing that list with the deans of the two schools, identifying a budget, and hoping to finalize everything in the coming weeks.”

Haiti has more HIV/AIDS patients per capita than any locale outside sub-Saharan Africa. Under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the largest public health initiative in the world, Haiti is one of 15 focus countries receiving aid.

I-TECH has programs in most of the PEPFAR-sponsored countries and works closely with many partners in Haiti, including Zanmi Lasante (Creole for “Partners in Health”) started by Dr. Paul Farmer of Harvard Medical School.

With French and Creole the predominant languages spoken in Haiti, all four of the visiting Haitians speak limited English, so several UW students volunteered to serve as translators. Scott Fraser-Dauphinee, who’s applying to medical school this fall, said he’s enjoyed being an interpreter for the group during lectures, lab sessions and lab tours.

“It’s been great for me because English is my first language and I rarely get a chance to speak French in Seattle,” he said. “They are a wonderful group, very motivated to learn in class and, once class is over, they’re always asking for additional information. When it comes down to the material, they want to absorb everything.”

But when it comes to drive and motivation, the instructors prefer to describe the dedication and accomplishments of their own students back in Haiti.

Louis and Lamothe describe students braving violence and gun shots in the streets of Port-au-Prince to get to class on time. In addition to lectures, their students study in tandem with physicians and mentors, often working late into the evenings.

Although no online resources exist at either school, Marthol said his students often ask questions that show they’ve been doing extra research online — meaning they’ve been spending their own money at Internet cafés to learn additional information.

“My students are very motivated to learn,” Marthol said. “They are always on time, which is a huge accomplishment given the transportation challenges in Haiti. And, since I’ve been here, two of my students have called me and said ‘Frantz, please learn as much as you can and bring it back to us!’”