Testing wastewater could give early warning system for preventing epidemics

New ’water fingerprinting’ technology developed by researchers at the University of Bath to test a city’s water 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.

In this internationally collaborative project, interdisciplinary experts from the University of Bath and Stellenbosch University (South Africa) are teaming up to develop a real-time community-wide public health early warning system (EWS) by measuring biomarkers - molecules made by the body that characterise disease and illness - 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.

The project 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 2.5 billion people will be added to the urban population.

This 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 LMIC (Low and Middle income) countries across the world.

Professor in Environment & Analytical Chemistry and member of the Water Innovation & Research Centre at the University of Bath (WIRC @ Bath) , Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern is leading this project. She 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, commented: "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 1.1 million of funding from Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) through the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and will last three years. More information is available at http://gow.epsrc.ac.uk/­NGBOViewGr­ant.aspx?G­rantRef=EP­/P028403/1

The ReNEW project team

The research team includes researchers from the University’s Water Innovation & Research Centre and Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies.

  • Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, Professor in Environment & Analytical Chemistry, University of Bath
  • Professor Julie Barnett, Social psychologist and Professor of Health Psychology, University of Bath
  • Dr Pedro Estrela, Senior Lecturer in Biosensors & Bioelectronics, University of Bath
  • Professor Ed Feil, Professor of Microbial Evolution, University of Bath
  • Professor Chris Frost, Professor of Organic Chemistry, University of Bath
  • Dr Thomas Kjeldsen, Senior Lecturer in Civil Engineering, University of Bath
  • Professor Danae Stanton Fraser, Professor in Human Computer Interaction, University of Bath
  • Professor Gideon Wolfaardt, Professor in Microbiology and Director of Stellenbosch University Water Institute, Stellenbosch University
  • Professor Mark Swilling, Professor of Sustainable Development at the School of Public Leadership, Stellenbosch University
  • Dr Tobi Louw, Senior Lecturer in Process Engineering, Stellenbosch University
  • Dr Marelize Botes, Senior Scientist in the Department of Microbiology, Stellenbosch University