In order to audit United Kingdom laboratory diagnostic and reference services including novel molecular methods for tuberculosis, a questionnaire was sent to laboratories submitting specimens to the PHLS Mycobacterium Reference Unit (MRU) and regional centres and to the Scottish Mycobacteria Reference Laboratory (SMRL) in 1996-7. Nationally, 67.2% of laboratories responded. Most UK laboratories were fully or conditionally CPA accredited and take part in the NEQAS proficiency scheme. On average only 3.3% of primary samples submitted for mycobacterial diagnosis in 1995 produced a mycobacterial culture from approximately half as many patients (that is, a mean of 1488 specimens producing 49 isolates from 23 patients). Potentially over 380,000 specimens are processed for mycobacteria in the UK each year. The majority of laboratories use 4% NaOH +/- NALC for specimen decontamination. Culture on solid media was used by most laboratories and 62.9% also use liquid media. Most laboratories incubated cultures for eight weeks. Few laboratories use molecular diagnostic methods. Laboratories were most likely to use molecular methods for diagnosing tuberculous meningitis and for specimens from immunocompromised patients, although usage was strongly influenced by cost. Within England and Wales 43.9% (47/107) and 56% (61/109) of laboratories wanted a rapid service for rifampicin resistance detection in M tuberculosis from immunocompetent and immunocompromised patients, respectively. In regard to a tuberculous meningitis service, 80.5% (43/112) and 84.3% (102/121) of laboratories wanted this service for immunocompetent and immunocompromised patients, respectively. The quality of reference services was rated as "very good"/"good" by 85.6% of respondents nationally. Rapid molecular amplification diagnostic services were established at the PHLS MRU for rifampicin drug resistance detection nationally and for tuberculous meningitis at the MRU.
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