About the Public Health Laboratory
Public Health Laboratory Overview
The Public Health Laboratory (PHL) collaborates with a variety of program partners to detect, investigate, prevent, and control public health threats. These threats include rare or unusual infectious diseases, such as "invasive" bacterial infections; outbreaks of illness from consuming contaminated food or water; terrorism events; chemical hazards; environmental emergencies; and rare but treatable congenital abnormalities in newborn babies.
In collaboration with environmental health programs, the PHL analyzes samples of air, water, wastewater, sludge, sediment, soil, wildlife, vegetation and hazardous waste for the presence of public health hazards such as physical agents, chemical and bacterial contaminants, and radiation.
In collaboration with acute disease epidemiology programs, the PHL monitors and responds to public health threats. Through the analysis of human specimens for bacteria, parasites, fungi, viruses and other infectious disease agents, the PHL and acute disease epidemiology programs can detect a disease outbreak, focus a disease outbreak investigation and plan an effective public health intervention. The PHL also collaborates to identify trends such as anti-microbial resistance, the emergence of new diseases such as West Nile Virus and the re-emergence of serious diseases such as tuberculosis.
In collaboration with hospitals, clinics and other clinical labs in the state, the PHL provides reference and confirmatory testing of specimens, and employs state-of-the-art techniques not available in most labs. This technical assistance extends and increases the testing capability of Minnesota hospitals, clinics and clinical labs. For example, the PHL is the only facility in the state that does rabies testing, and serves as a referral center for specimens sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for further testing.
All residents of Minnesota are served and benefit from the work of the
PHL. Laboratory scientists work in partnership with colleagues in a variety
of local, state and federal agencies to evaluate and respond to public
health threats. These agencies include:
• Local Agencies: Public health agencies, local emergency responders and police and fire personnel;
• State Agencies: Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Minnesota Departments of Agriculture, Transportation, Natural Resources, and Labor and Industry, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District, and the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, at the University of Minnesota; and
• Federal Agencies: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Monitoring for Public Health Threats
The PHL conducts statewide monitoring for the emergence of public health threats. Also, the PHL plays a key role in the federally supported Emerging Infections Program (EIP), which focuses on the identification and control of new or previously unrecognized infectious disease problems. This testing enables the PHL to detect disease outbreaks, and the public health threats posed by newly identified infectious agents. For example, the laboratory has been testing dead crows and jays for West Nile Virus as part of its routine surveillance for the presence of the virus in Minnesota. Since crows and jays are especially susceptible to the virus, they provide an effective indicator of whether WNV is present in a particular area. Minnesota's West Nile Virus surveillance activities have been a joint effort of MDH, the Minnesota Board of Animal Health, the Metropolitan Mosquito Control District, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at the University of Minnesota and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Disease Outbreak Investigation and Control
The PHL uses high-tech molecular methods such as DNA “fingerprinting, amplification, and sequencing” for the rapid detection of disease outbreaks and to identify specific infectious agents. The use of DNA subtyping—or "fingerprinting"—enables the scientists to more quickly detect and determine the source of foodborne and waterborne disease outbreaks. Early outbreak detection sharply focuses the scope of the epidemiological investigation, significantly limits the number of people that become ill, and improves the timeliness and cost effectiveness of the public health intervention. For example, the laboratory is using these methods to test dead birds for West Nile Virus to help focus the scope of the epidemiological investigation.
Detection of Treatable Disorders in Newborns
Together with hospitals and medical professionals statewide the PHL provides testing to Minnesota newborns for over 50 rare but serious disorders. Symptoms of the disorders are not visible to parents or doctors until it is too late. If these hidden disorders are not treated soon after birth, the babies can die, suffer permanent brain damage, or other complications.
Reference and Quality Assurance Services
The PHL provides reference and confirmatory testing of specimens, and employs state-of-the-art techniques not available in most labs. In addition, the “Minnesota Laboratory System" provides training, technical assistance and testing protocols to a network of clinical laboratories throughout Minnesota. In addition, the PHL certifies public and private environmental laboratories to conduct testing for the federal Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Resource Conservation and Recovery, and Underground Storage Tank Programs in Minnesota
Response to Public Health Emergencies
The PHL is critical to Minnesota’s public health response and intervention system, and can respond to public health emergencies 24/7. The PHL scientists use sophisticated instrumentation, state-of –the art methodologies, and works closely with state and federal agencies as well as local and federal law environment to rapidly respond in the event of an emergency. The laboratory is equipped with a Biosafety Level 3 containment facility which provides added protection for laboratory scientists to safely handle and contain highly infectious agents or samples of unknown origin. We also maintain the capability to respond to radiation emergencies involving radiation sources.
The Minnesota PHL was first established more than 100 years ago. This was during a time in history when the germ theory of infectious disease was first established and little was known about the impact of environmental contamination on the public’s health. In the early 1900s, with development of more sophisticated methods and instruments, the PHL became the premiere laboratory in Minnesota with the ability to identify environmental hazards and diagnose epidemic infectious diseases. Today, the PHL focuses on surveillance for early detection of public health threats, identification of rare chemical and biological hazards, emergency preparedness and response, and assurance of quality laboratory data through establishment of collaborative partnerships with clinical and environmental laboratories throughout the state.