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In the lab: '80% of all diagnoses can be attributed to our work'

When doctors don't know what's wrong with a patient, they order tests. But many people don't know what happens next. Kate is a biomedical scientist working in our hospital in Jordan. She blogs about the life-saving work of the lab...

I am two months into my first assignment with MSF in Amman, Jordan, where I am working as a microbiology laboratory manger in the MSF reconstructive surgery project.

I have always wanted to work with MSF and now I am in the field, it is everything I hoped it would be. A great team working together with the same values to make a meaningful difference to our patients who desperately need it.

People have suffered such brutal attacks – bombs, bullets and burns

Our patients are arriving at our hospital with severe and incomprehensible war injuries from neighbouring countries including Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Palestine. These are the lucky ones as they will receive expert care from our staff to help reconstruct their bodies.

Just walking around the hospital, I always see patients without limbs, with extensive burns and disfigured faces. To me, it is unbelievable that these people have suffered such brutal attacks – bombs, bullets and burns to name a few.

Kate and a colleague in the lab in Jordan

When I tell people I work in a lab, they often do not know that we exist, let alone what we do or how important our work is to the health care of the patient. In fact, 80% of all diagnoses can be attributed to our work.

In this project, the most significant problem we are faced with is the severity of the infection associated with the war injuries and most importantly, the levels of antibiotic resistance.

Sometimes the infection is so severe that amputations are necessary, and this is always hard to hear

In the lab we test bone and tissue samples from the operating theatre for infection and provide an antibiogram to the doctors so they can appropriately target the infection without causing more resistance. We are finding high rates of multi-drug-resistant organisms and organisms resistant to carbapenem antibiotics, which are termed the antibiotics of ‘last resort’.

I went on a ward round with the doctors to see some of the patients suffering with particularly resistant infections. The impact on their recovery is huge; these patients must undergo lengthy, potentially toxic antibiotic treatment, which not only prolongs the time they stay here but also their surgical outcome. Sometimes the infection is so severe that amputations are necessary, and this is always hard to hear.

Unfortunately, as long as there is war, the spread of these resistant infections will continue and I fear that it is only a matter of time until we receive a patient with an infection that we are unable to treat.