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National Health Laboratory Service

NHLS: Strengthening the healthcare system in South Africa

Ella Copeland

The NHLS is at the centre of medicine in South Africa, funding research, training experts and offering laboratory services
NHLS: Strengthening the healthcare system in South Africa


The largest diagnostic pathology service in South Africa, the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) has served the South African medical market for the past 11 years, providing health laboratory services, conducting medical research and providing training for health science education.

With 265 laboratories across nine provinces and more than 6,700 members of staff, the NHLS cover 80 percent of the South African population, playing a major role in the public health of South Africa.

Established following an Act of Parliament, the NHLS is an amalgamation of the former South African Institute for Medical Research (SAIMR), National Institute for Virology and National Centre for Occupational Health in addition to university and provincial pathology laboratories. A state-owned entity, the NHLS is run as a not-for-profit company, offering three key functions across the country; providing services to the health industry across South Africa, training all the pathologists across the country and undertaking appropriate skills for teaching and education through research and published work.

Extensive services

Together, the divisions of the NHLS is pivotal to South Africa’s current medical care and quality assurance, in addition to investing in future medical research and training. Offering epidemiology, surveillance and outbreak response activities, the NHLS also provide key functions in the support of occupational health services, in addition to providing laboratory services for ‘priority programmes’ which address life-saving research into HIV and tuberculosis.

The NHLS has a number of divisions, including The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), National Institute for Occupational Health (NIOH), National Cancer Registry (NCR) and the South African Vaccine Producers (SAVP), which houses an Anti-venom Unit.

The four divisions

Established by the NHLS, the NICD is the national public health institute for South Africa, a centre for disease surveillance and control in South Africa. Replacing the previous National Institute for Virology, it provides microbiology, virology, epidemiology, surveillance and public health research to support the government's response to communicable disease threats. 

Having existed in various forms since the 1950s, the NIOH is recognised internationally for excellence in research, service and training to support occupational health services not only in South Africa but also in Southern Africa through its extensive outreach activities and collaborations. It consists of six key divisions; Occupational Medicine and Epidemiology; Occupational Hygiene; Pathology; Toxicology and Analytical Services; National Cancer Registry and Cytology. Each division has a specific focus and provides services and training to stakeholders, clients and students. 

First established in 1986, the NCR plays a vital role in maintaining and developing national and international awareness of the growing problem of cancer in the South African population.The NCR falls under the executive management of the NIOH, operating as a surveillance unit whose major function is to collate and analyse newly diagnosed cancer cases and report annual cancer incidence rates.

The SAVP produces a range of anti-venom vaccines, and hosts the anti-venom unit. The sole African producer of equine anti-venoms for the treatment of bites from a range of snakes, spiders and scorpions, the SAVP also hosts the Quality Control Laboratories which offer contract safety testing and antibody testing to the pharmaceutical industry.

Investing in education

The NHLS has an extremely large footprint across South Africa, with a lab in every hospital across the nation. Offering training to all of the pathologists and 80 percent of lab technicians across South Africa, the NHLS is responsible for training and research facilities, funding a number of universities in the country.

Research conducted by the National Health Laboratory Service covers a wide spectrum of activities in the pathology and surveillance disciplines. The research agenda covers the priority diseases within South Africa, such as HIV and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria, pneumococcal infections, occupational health, screening for cervical cancer and malnutrition.

Featuring the largest rollout programme in the world for gene export and drug resistance, the NHLS are at the centre of HIV research. According to a spokesperson for the NHLS, 60 percent of the world’s HIV research is conducted in South Africa.

Research is conducted through the pathology departments of the nine university medical schools associated with the National Health Laboratory Service. Several research projects are undertaken in collaboration with international researchers and institutions.

To support the research undertaken in South Africa, the NHLS supply a number of grants to enhance research capacity in medical pathology. Providing research grants to support young and new staff members in addition to experienced/established academic medical pathology staff/researchers to undertake high quality research, the NHLS functions like a private business, using its funds to provide and organise trials and laboratory testing.

Ground breaking research

One recent research project which was part funded and conducted by scientists from the NHLS has brought the world a step closer to a possible HIV vaccine.

Professor Lynn Morris, head of AIDS research at the NICD and Dr Penny Moore, a senior scientist at the NICD’s centre for HIV and Sexually Transmitted Infections discovered that a weakness exists in HIV which can enable certain people to produce antibodies which are able to kill up to 88 percent of strains of the virus from around the world.

With such a successful background, the NHLS is at the forefront of medical research, both in South Africa and around the world. Offering a wealth of opportunity to academics and crucial medical care to the South African population, this state-owned company has a reputation to be proud of and will certainly develop this further in years to come.

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