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ESR-designed container laboratory advances Tonga’s science self-reliance

10 December 2019

Pacific strategy

A New Zealand-built innovative mobile container laboratory designed by ESR scientists, will be officially opened in Tonga this week.

The new environmental health laboratory will initially focus on analysis of drinking water quality and preventing mosquito-borne illness such as Dengue fever, the Zika and Chickungunya viruses. The laboratory will make processing tests faster and more accurate for a range of problems common in Tonga and will assist health inspectors to respond to outbreaks of foodborne illness. 

The laboratory is the first of its type to be placed in Tonga and now reduces the need for time consuming and costly practice of sending samples to overseas laboratories in New Zealand, Australia or New Caledonia. Providing sample analysis and developing capability within Tonga was a key aim of Healthy Tonga Environments; a five-year-long New Zealand Aid Programme-funded project co-delivered by ESR and Tonga’s Ministry of Health.

The official opening will be attended by VIPs with representatives from Tonga and the Pacific, the New Zealand and Australian High Commissions, New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, embassies, ESR and more.

The containerised environmental health testing laboratory provides facilities to ensure the rapid turnaround of water quality testing, identification of disease carrying organisms and their susceptibility to insecticides.

Sited at Vaiola Hospital, in the capital of Nukuʻalofa, the laboratory is part of a whole system approach to uplift environmental health service in Tonga.

Project lead, Christchurch-based ESR Senior Scientist, Matt Ashworth, says growing the health science capability within Tonga is critical as the Pacific region faces the impacts of climate change on health, as well as across all other aspects of life.

“The laboratory’s development and ongoing operation is essential in providing Tongan health officials with an analytical capability that allows high-quality, timely information for decision making,” he says.

The containerised laboratory has been set up to provide core analytical services for the environmental health team but can be used for other services such as outbreak investigation, or preparation of samples for offshore analysis.

OFFICIAL OPENING:  Vaiola Hospital, Nuku’alofa at 10am Thursday 12 December 2019.


Laboratory features

The laboratory is constructed with 2 x 40-foot containers connected along their sides to create a structure 12.2m long and 4.9m wide.  Shipping containers were chosen for their low maintenance shell, which also provides good physical security.

The internal fit-out is a turnkey finish – ready for immediate use. Vaiola Hospital’s land only required minor groundwork to prepare the site and permanent placement and commissioning was completed in under 48 hours.

It’s equipped with a reverse osmosis, UV treated water system, and air conditioning.  Equipment was supplied through the Healthy Tonga Environments budget and donated equipment received from around New Zealand through the Pacific Pathology Training Centre, based in Wellington.

The laboratory is outfitted with basic chemistry equipment including: pH, conductivity and turbidity meters and a Quantitray-Colilert system for microbiological water quality analysis.  The kit list also includes microscopes, a microbiological diagnostic testing kit, a laminar flow cabinet, an incubator, fridges, freezers, weighing balances, and all the things needed to support an operating laboratory.

Remote assistance from ESR

The laboratory will be run entirely by Tongan staff. Senior trainers and quality assurance staff from Vaiola Hospital’s clinical laboratory will provide support. ESR scientists are providing remote trouble-shooting assistance and will make regular visits over the next 18 months.