Testing wastewater could prevent epidemics

University of Bath researchers have developed new water fingerprinting technology to test a city’s water, which could soon be mitigating infectious disease, limiting the spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs such as E. coli, and enabling authorities to monitor the overall health of the public.

The University of Bath reports that, in an internationally collaborative project, interdisciplinary experts from the University of Bath and Stellenbosch University in South Africa are teaming up to develop a real time community wide public health early warning system (EWS) by measuring biomarkers in the sewage system.

Urban water contains a mixture of human waste, wastewater and run off samples, pooled from contributing populations. To epidemiologists, this cocktail contains a treasure trove of information on the underlying health status of the population and surrounding environment. Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern is leading the international project, which will combine state of the art methodology in chemistry, genetics and electronics to unlock this information and provide real time health profiles of urban water samples. This will enable government health professionals to identify early on any risks to public health and therefore attempt to mitigate potential widespread crises such as pandemics and infectious diseases.

Africa and Asia are experiencing unprecedented population growth and urbanisation. Over half of the world’s population now live in urban areas and as the world population continues to grow alongside increasing urbanisation, it is projected that by 2050 there will be 2.5 billion more people living in urban areas. The exceptional speed of urbanisation and global population growth poses substantial risks to the resilience of cities in preventing widespread poor public health. Working with local organisations East Rand Water Care Company (ERWAT), Stellenbosch River Collaborative (SRC) and Enkanini Research Centre (ERC), the project will use Stellenbosch as a case study to trail this technology to understand the feasibility of implementing a EWS in South Africa and in other low and middle income countries across the world.

Lead Investigator and Professor in Environment & Analytical Chemistry at the University of Bath, Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern said “This project focussing on Urban Water Profiling can become a truly effective, real time and low-cost local, national and ultimately global surveillance system enabling authorities to effectively identify and prevent threats to an urban population’s health.”

Professor in Microbiology and Director of Stellenbosch University Water Institute, Gideon Wolfaardt, said “South Africa, where 65% of the population live in urban settings and is predicted to grow to 80% by 2050, provides a good representation of the alarming rate of urbanization that often exceeds the rate at which additional medical care can be introduced. Community-wide surveillance can thus become a powerful first line of defence in health care, and the experience gained here can be transferred to other countries.”

The ReNEW project (Developing Resilient Nations – Towards a Public Health Early Warning System via Urban Water Profiling) has received £1.1m of funding from Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through EPSRC and will last three years.

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