In 2003, Karidia Diallo was finishing her Ph.D. in microbiology just as the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, was starting. Karidia felt lucky – her passion and credentials aligned perfectly with the initiative, which was recruiting HIV lab professionals like herself, in partnership with CDC, to launch an ambitious effort to bring lifesaving treatment to as many people as possible in sub-Saharan Africa – the epicenter of the world’s HIV crisis.
“When we started at PEPFAR, we were bringing molecular testing to Africa,” she recalls. “People didn’t believe that it could happen. They said, you don’t have the quality, infrastructure, everything was not there. But we did it!”
Karidia and her colleagues at CDC understood the crucial role of laboratories in the global HIV response, from accurate testing and diagnoses to effective treatment, care and monitoring, and preventing new HIV infections.
They soon leaped into action, partnering with Ministries of Health to train healthcare workers, develop national laboratory strategic plans, improve laboratory quality, and develop innovative diagnostic and monitoring systems. Over the next two decades, CDC’s efforts would completely transform the landscape of laboratory systems throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
Nowhere have these laboratory advances been more evident than in their impact on HIV testing efforts. Since PEPFAR’s inception, CDC has been at the forefront of global efforts to expand and strengthen HIV testing: increasing access to testing, especially in resource-limited settings; improving testing accuracy and efficiency; expanding capacity; and monitoring and evaluating HIV testing services.
CDC’s laboratory advances, as part of PEPFAR, have also paved the way for innovative HIV diagnostics and monitoring tools. Innovations include rapid testing, which can detect HIV antibodies in blood or saliva in less than 30 minutes; index testing, or testing sexual or injectable drug use contacts of individuals diagnosed with HIV; and tests for recent infection, which distinguish between recent (within the last one year) and long-term HIV infections.
Collectively, these efforts and innovations are helping to identify more people living with HIV and link them to effective treatment and services in over 50 countries. In 2022, CDC and its partners helped more than 1.4 million people learn their positive HIV test results and start immediately on lifesaving treatment, allowing them to live longer, healthier lives – and interrupting the spread of HIV.
“You cannot put somebody on treatment if you don’t know the status of the person,” Karidia says. “This is why I say the lab is the foundation of this whole effort,” she adds. “What we are doing here at CDC is so critical and why working for CDC, to me, is a privilege.”