Smith Saenkum is Malteser International’s Lab Supervisor in the Mae La Oon and Mae Ra Ma Luang camps, which house more than 35,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand. He has been working with Malteser International for six years.
How does the laboratory technician training programme works?
Every year, we recruit students from the camps’ schools who have the highest grades and invite them to apply to the programme. Last year, we had about 70 applicants who completed the examinations. 25 of them were called for an interview, and 10 were selected to become lab technicians. They are trained in a total of 18 different topics, from conducting basic lab tests such as urine and stool exams and pregnancy tests, to malaria, tuberculosis and HIV screenings.
What is the focus of your work in the lab?
The main test we conduct at our laboratory in the Mae La Oon/Mae Ra Ma Luang camps is the malaria test. We perform about 20 malaria tests every day during low season; in the high season, we test up to 100 samples a day for malaria. We also conduct malaria investigations, so we look back in history to investigate the peaks and analyse the data. We have two peak seasons every year: the main one around June-July, and a smaller one in December. In the camps, we usually have around 250 malaria patients every year.
Does your work contribute to malaria prevention as well?
Currently, about 10% of the people who get screened have malaria – that number is quite high. That’s because we usually screen them only after they already feel sick and come to the hospital. To improve this situation, we have been conducting malaria campaigns before the rainy season, so we go around the camps making announcements and asking everybody to come to our mass screenings. We give priority to those who are already showing the early symptoms of the disease, and we make sure all family members of those who are sick get screened as well. Last June (2011), we were able to do 3,000 screenings. This is a good method to keep malaria controlled before the peak season. In addition to the screenings, we also work directly on prevention, and we educate the population. We tell them to use mosquito nets, tell them how to recognise the first symptoms of the disease, and to get checked regularly.
What has been one of your greatest challenges so far?
In terms of diseases, tuberculosis has been a challenge in the past. Last year, we were not able to be as effective in detecting TB as we would have liked to. There weren’t enough people coming to us to get screened. This year, we will ask more people to come, and we will work closely with the community health workers and the staff in the clinics to make sure that everyone who has symptoms of TB is sent to our lab.
Interview by Joice Biazoto
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