Serving society for a century

Pasteur Institute in Shillong has remained a crucial cog in the state’s healthcare system

Pasteur Institute is among the oldest institutions in Shillong and one of the low-key establishments which serve society without much publicity. Established in 1915 at the initiative of private individuals, the institute has till date played multiple roles from making vaccines, testing food and drugs, maintaining an animal house to COVID-19 testing centre.
The institute is named after Louis Pasteur, French chemist and microbiologist who is considered among the founders of medical microbiology. Pasteur Institute Shillong was established in the memory of King Edward VII.
In the beginning, the institute was under the Assam Medical Research Society that was funded by traders, transporters and industrialists. The construction of the main building was completed in 1917. Col R Knowles was the first director.
“There was something about Pasteur Institute that had always fascinated me then; perhaps its old ‘British’ charm, that unique and dignified, reserved and yet welcoming in some special way. Entering the campus one could feel the calm and serene atmosphere as one approaches the narrow meandering road with carpet of grass on both the sides and towering trees and chirping birds,” Dr DF Dkhar, the then deputy director of health services, Pasteur Institute, wrote in his article in the souvenir.
There have been many changes over the years but despite this, a part of the old Assam-type building still exists. Located in Lawmali near Polo, the apparently quiet building is abuzz with activities all the time.
In August 1945, the Society was dissolved and the institute came under the Assam government till 1972 when the Meghalaya government took over it. It was built in order to address a particular problem of tea planters in the region in the last quarter of 19th century. As hundreds of tea workers started dying of malaria and kala azar, planters decided to set up Pasteur Institute in the hill city as a solution to their suffering business.
For years, the institute was involved mainly in the mass production of vaccines like anti-rabies, cholera, typhoid, para-typhoid and bacteriophage. The last one was stopped after the introduction of anti-biotics. In 1996, production of all but anti-rabies was stopped following a central government directive. That too was stopped nine years after due to the blanket ban on the production of neural-tissue anti-rabies vaccine by the World Health Organisation.
The institute celebrated 100 years in 2015 and a souvenir was released on the occasion. Dr M Rynga, the then deputy director of health services in the state, wrote in her article, “Since the Institute was the only one of its kind in the region, it catered to the need of all the states in the North-East. The vaccines produced were supplied to the states of Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, occasionally to West Bengal and also to Bhutan and organisations like Railways, Oil companies, Tea estates and the Military Bases in the region.”

It played a pivotal role during epidemics like cholera and typhoid in the northeastern region. Also, it was and still is a training centre for laboratory technicians in routine laboratory techniques. It had also trained personnel of various commercial concerns in chemical testing of phenyl.
The institute also had a blood bank that was later converted to a zonal blood testing centre following the advent of HIV/AIDS in 1989. The regional blood bank at the institute is the “first licensed blood bank in the state with round the clock services”. This evolved with time and requirement and new testing procedures were introduced to keep transfusion transmissible infections at bay.
The biochemistry laboratory, which was set up in 1917, has significantly contributed to the diagnosis of various diseases and their treatment. For a long time, manual methods were used for certain tests like lipid profile and it was only in 2012 that auto-analysers were introduced.
Rynga, in her article, further wrote, “Since its inception the infrastructure of the Institute had neither been improved nor upgraded to keep up with the recent advancements and increased demand in vaccine production. After the attainment of statehood in 1972, the State Government in collaboration with the North Eastern council launched an ambitious programme to restore the status of the Institute to its former glory. And that is how we can see the Institute as it stands today.”
In 2004, the Ayush drug testing laboratory was established under the control and supervision of the Directorate of Health Services (Research etc), Pasteur Institute Shillong. It is equipped with sophisticated analytical instruments and there was a proposal for setting up the microbiology section under the National Ayush Mission.
The institute also houses a combined food and drugs laboratory that was set up in 1981. The laboratory is under the Directorate of Health Services. The food section is under the supervision of public analyst or food analyst and the drug section is looked after by the government analyst or drug analyst.
The laboratory was upgraded with high-end equipment worth around Rs 6 crore last September. However, it is yet to be functional as the section does not have a public analyst since 2008.
Microbiologist Dr W Lyngdoh said the machines are the latest in the market and will change the food testing (for toxins and pesticides) laboratory altogether. “We have experts to handle all the equipment,” she added.
At present, the microbiologists, the pharmacologists and other staff in the section have joined the fight against novel corona virus. The laboratory team is making sanitisers for supply mainly to healthcare professionals and hospitals.
The ongoing pandemic has made the institute an indispensable warrior. It is preparing to start a testing centre for COVID and fully utilise its strong infrastructure during the crisis. Pathologist Dr E Shadap said the Central Supply and Sterile Department, which has 20 staff, has taken the responsibility for sanitisation and disposal of bio-medical waste from the hospitals. The institute is collecting the waste from the city hospitals for safe disposal.
“We already have a set up for sterilisation. We only needed to buy a few more equipment like washing machines. Everything is automated and the researchers here are already accustomed with the safety measures. Our machines (which were procured under National Health Mission) comply with WHO guidelines,” Shadap said.
Shadap’s pathology section offers many diagnostic tests in the fields of haematology, body fluid analysis, urine and semen analysis, bone marrow aspiration studies and coagulation profile, among others.
The institute has adorned numerous feathers on its cap and remains as versatile today as it was decades ago. It has continued to be an important instrument in the state’s healthcare system and the dedicated team of researchers and laboratory personnel promise to uphold the glory in the future too.

(The information has been sourced from the institute’s centenary souvenir.
With inputs from Sunday Shillong Team)

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