The Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory (MDU PHL) established in 1897, is the longest continuously serving public health laboratory in Australia. It is located within the Doherty Institute at the University of Melbourne and is primarily funded by the Victorian Department of Health.
MDU PHL undertakes reference microbiology testing for notifiable pathogens and organisms of public health significance, including surveillance of foodborne diseases, antimicrobial resistance, invasive bacterial pathogens, and sexually transmitted infections.
The team at MDU PHL comprises highly skilled scientists, medical microbiologists, bioinformaticians and genomic epidemiologists dedicated to developing best-practice approaches to public health microbiology. MDU PHL has capacity and expertise in pathogen genomics, providing leadership and guidance in the establishment of sequencing workflows, advice and capacity-building for bioinformatics, and assistance with the integration of genomic and epidemiological data to investigate local outbreaks.
The national and regional work undertaken by MDU PHL is supported by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australian Government Department of Health, World Health Organization, and the Australian Government Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF).
MDU PHL’s efforts in implementing integrated public health pathogen genomics is recognised internationally by organisations such as World Health Organization (WHO), Public Health England (PHE), the Public Health Alliance for Genomics Epidemiology (PH4AGE), National Centre for Infectious Diseases (NCID) Singapore, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and US Center for Disease Control (CDC). MDU PHL is a designated World Health Organization (WHO) Regional Reference Laboratory for Invasive Bacterial-Vaccine Preventable Diseases (IB-VPD).
Vision and mission statement
The Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory works to provide the highest quality microbiological services to identify, investigate and control current and emerging public health threats posed by infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistance and biological agents of security concern.
The Laboratory provides expertise in public health and clinical microbiology, infectious diseases, infection control, epidemiology, genomics and bioinformatics to achieve its mission and strengthen public health surveillance and response.
MDU PHL was the first PHL in Australia accredited for genomic testing of pathogens (ISO15187 standard). MDU is Victoria’s pathogen genomics public health laboratory and is a national leader in implementing next-generation technology into the public health system for characterisation and surveillance of state and nationally notifiable pathogens, and other pathogens of public health significance. MDU PHL is the coordinator of the Communicable Diseases Genomics Network and leads the national genomics surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 for Australia via AusTrakka.
Bioinformatics and Genomic Epidemiology
MDU PHL have recruited a nationally leading team of bioinformaticians who liaise with the laboratory in the development of bioinformatic analysis pipelines and genomic epidemiologists who conduct epidemiological analyses and report on pathogens of public health significance. MDU PHL provides genomic data, interpretation and advice to all state and national departments of health as well as supporting the Oceania region through genomic surveillance and investigation.
In close collaboration with the Victorian Department of Health, MDU investigates foodborne pathogen outbreaks to inform source acquisition and transmission of disease spread and contributes to legal case management when required. MDU also runs national pathogen genomic surveillance programs for Listeria and Hepatitis A, and is NATA accredited for Environmental, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, Animal Pathology testing (ISO/IEC 17025).
Infection control and advice
MDU PHL has been providing infection prevention and control (IPC) advice and support to the Communicable Diseases (CD) section at the Department of Health (DH) for over 20 years. Settings for which IPC advice is provided include non-acute healthcare facilities (for example, GP and dental clinics) and other community-based practices, such as beauty therapists and tattoo artists. Advice and support provided includes:
- Public health investigations into issues, such as, blood borne virus transmissions, unregistered premises and IPC breaches in health facilities
- Development and implementation of DH guidelines, for example, the Infection prevention and control guidelines for hair, beauty, tattooing and skin penetration (2019)
- Participation in surveillance and response activities for notifiable conditions, such as, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease (CJD), carbapenemase-producing organisms and Candida auris
- COVID-19 response.
More recently, MDU PHL have been involved in several projects to strengthen preparedness and response to AMR issues in the Asia-Pacific region. These include provision of IPC expertise, development and review of guidance and SOPs, and support for capacity building and training programs.
Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) and One Health
MDU PHL is accredited for Animal Pathology (ISO/IEC 17025) and is a registered Veterinary and Biological Diagnostic Laboratory.
MDU PHL is the WHO Invasive Bacterial-Vaccine Preventable Diseases Regional Reference Laboratory that provides diagnostic testing and genomic sequencing services to several countries across the Asia-Pacific and South East Asia Region. MDU PHL supports capacity building in reference laboratories in diagnostic testing, pathogen genomics and surveillance of infectious diseases and antimicrobial resistance to improve global health and build equitable access to public health across the Asia-Pacific and South East Asia Region.
MDU PHL assists the Victorian Department of Health with rapid responses to outbreaks of foodborne and waterborne investigations, antimicrobial-resistant pathogens, environmental contamination e.g., in healthcare facilities, and other pathogens. During investigations MDU PHL analyse specimens and samples that are collected by the department and local government officers, or are submitted to MDU PHL by others, such as primary laboratories as part of investigations.
Sexually transmitted infections
MDU PHL operate the onsite laboratory for the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre, providing efficient and accurate diagnosis of sexually transmitted infections.
We are committed to providing an efficient, effective, accurate, consistent and timely service to our clients.
We integrate the principles of ISO/IEC 17025 and AS/ISO 15189 into the management of MDU PHL to facilitate continuous quality improvement.
It is the responsibility of each staff member to reflect on and evaluate our processes and outputs, to meet these quality objectives.
Together we can achieve and maintain the highest level of professionalism and provide a legally robust service that will benefit the public’s health.
We are accredited with National Associated of Testing Authorities (NATA) for testing of Environmental, Food & Beverage, Healthcare, Pharmaceutical and Media products, Legal management – Forensic operations module, Animal Pathology (under ISO/IEC 17025) and Human Pathology (under ISO 15189).
As Melbourne grew quickly into a large city by world standards in the 1880s, all manner of waste was dumped into open street channels, which ran into the Yarra River and Hobsons Bay, polluted waterways and caused epidemics of fatal typhoid and diphtheria.
In 1890 a Royal Commission into the unsanitary conditions in Melbourne identified a need for a specialist laboratory in Victoria to carry out bacteriological examinations, along with its recommendation for a sewage farm that led to the development of the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee. The Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory (formerly also known as Public Health Laboratory and Bacteriology Laboratory) was established in 1897, the same year that the first Melbourne homes were connected to the sewerage system.
We are the longest continuously serving public health laboratory in Australia.
Photograph of the original service contract with the Department of Health
Professor Ben Howden
Director of the Microbiological Diagnostic Unit Public Health Laboratory
Professor Deborah Williamson
Dr Norelle Sherry
Medical Microbiologist and Infectious Diseases Physician
Dr Susan Ballard
Associate Professor Torsten Seemann
Operations Manager and Section Leader for the Quality Team
Portfolio Manager for Pathogen Genomics
Program Manager for Antimicrobial Resistance and Genomics
Enteric Reference Laboratory Section Leader
Reference, Unusual Pathogens and Resistance (RUPR) Section Leader
Food, Environment and Outbreak Response (FEOR) Group Section Leader
Vesna De Petra
Melbourne Sexual Health Clinic (MSHC) Laboratory Section Leader and a member of the MDU Quality Team
Dr Kristy Horan
Bioinformatics Section Leader
Dr Michelle Sait
Molecular Diagnostics Section Leader
Acting Epidemiology Section Leader