Every US state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia, has a central public health laboratory that performs testing and other laboratory services on behalf of the entire jurisdiction. In addition, most states have local public health laboratories, ranging in size from large metropolitan laboratories with hundreds of scientists to small rural laboratories with one or two staff, that support local public health activities like sexually transmitted disease control, drinking water testing and lead abatement.
State and large local public health laboratories frequently perform tests that are unavailable elsewhere. At the state level, public health laboratories help formulate public policies, develop new methods to detect and combat infectious disease and environmental pollutants and toxins, regulate private medical and environmental laboratories and perform other essential services to protect residents’ health and well-being. At the federal level, state public health laboratories are an important part of a national network of laboratories that support response to national emergencies and incidents involving food, disease, environment and agriculture.
In one way or another, the work of public health laboratories affects the life of every American. For example, laboratories in public health:
• Screen 97% of the babies born in the US for potentially life-threatening metabolic and genetic disorders.
• Monitor communities for pathogens that spread in food or through contact with people or animals.
• Perform almost all testing to detect and monitor newly emerging infectious diseases like West Nile virus, SARS and avian influenza.
• Test drinking and some recreational water for bacteria, parasites, pesticides and other harmful substances.
• Rapidly identify suspect agents, as in 2012 when the Colorado public health laboratory detected a case of bubonic plague in a seven-year-old girl who recovered from the potentially fatal disease with prompt treatment.