BACKGROUND: Failures of blood screening due to low test quality or poor laboratory technique increase the risk of transfusion-transmitted infections. For this reason, the World Health Organization has recommended a quality control (QC) system for African blood centers.

STUDY DESIGN AND METHODS: We conducted a cross-sectional research assessment of test performance at 51 blood centers in 17 African countries. A blinded, standardized panel containing 25 samples positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), and hepatitis C virus (HCV) and negative controls was tested by the centers using their operational infectious disease testing consisting of rapid tests, enzyme immunoassays (EIAs), or antigen-antibody EIAs. Nucleic acid testing was not performed.

RESULTS: The overall performances of the 42 assays were the lowest for hepatitis B surface antigen (75.6% sensitivity, 94.5% specificity), then for HCV (80.0% sensitivity, 98.1% specificity) and for HIV (81.4% sensitivity, 99.6% specificity). Poor sensitivity was driven by the use of rapid tests, which had sensitivities of 47.4% for HBV, 63.7% for HCV, and 72.4% for HIV. From a blood screening point of view, 321 (5.6%) infected units would have been transfused due to false-negative results. Assuming that those that were missed by rapid tests (84%) would have been detected by EIAs, 270 viral contaminations (92 HIV, 65 HCV, and 113 HBV) would have been avoided.

CONCLUSION: These results support the discontinuation of rapid tests and implementation of antigen-antibody EIAs whenever possible in Africa. This successful QC program highlights the need for promoting such periodic external quality assessment studies.