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      Fecal Contamination of Drinking-Water in Low- and Middle-Income Countries: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis


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          Robert Bain and colleagues conduct a systematic review and meta-analysis to assess whether water from “improved” sources is less likely to contain fecal contamination than “unimproved” sources and find that access to an “improved source” provides a measure of sanitary protection but does not ensure water is free of fecal contamination.

          Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary



          Access to safe drinking-water is a fundamental requirement for good health and is also a human right. Global access to safe drinking-water is monitored by WHO and UNICEF using as an indicator “use of an improved source,” which does not account for water quality measurements. Our objectives were to determine whether water from “improved” sources is less likely to contain fecal contamination than “unimproved” sources and to assess the extent to which contamination varies by source type and setting.

          Methods and Findings

          Studies in Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish were identified from online databases, including PubMed and Web of Science, and grey literature. Studies in low- and middle-income countries published between 1990 and August 2013 that assessed drinking-water for the presence of Escherichia coli or thermotolerant coliforms (TTC) were included provided they associated results with a particular source type. In total 319 studies were included, reporting on 96,737 water samples. The odds of contamination within a given study were considerably lower for “improved” sources than “unimproved” sources (odds ratio [OR] = 0.15 [0.10–0.21], I 2 = 80.3% [72.9–85.6]). However over a quarter of samples from improved sources contained fecal contamination in 38% of 191 studies. Water sources in low-income countries (OR = 2.37 [1.52–3.71]; p<0.001) and rural areas (OR = 2.37 [1.47–3.81] p<0.001) were more likely to be contaminated. Studies rarely reported stored water quality or sanitary risks and few achieved robust random selection. Safety may be overestimated due to infrequent water sampling and deterioration in quality prior to consumption.


          Access to an “improved source” provides a measure of sanitary protection but does not ensure water is free of fecal contamination nor is it consistent between source types or settings. International estimates therefore greatly overstate use of safe drinking-water and do not fully reflect disparities in access. An enhanced monitoring strategy would combine indicators of sanitary protection with measures of water quality.

          Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary

          Editors' Summary


          Access to clean water is fundamental to human health. The importance of water to human health and wellbeing is encapsulated in the Human Right to Water, reaffirmed by the United Nations in 2010, which entitles everyone to “sufficient, safe, acceptable and physically accessible and affordable water for personal and domestic uses.” A step towards such universal access to water is Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target 7c that aims to halve the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking-water. One of the indicators to help monitor progress towards this target used by the Joint Monitoring Project (JMP—an initiative of the World Health Organization and UNICEF) is “use of an improved source.” Improved sources include piped water into a dwelling, yard, or plot, or a standpipe, borehole, and protected dug well. Unimproved sources are those that do not protect water from outside contamination, such as unprotected wells, unprotected springs, and surface waters.

          Why Was This Study Done?

          While this simple categorization may reflect established principles of sanitary protection, this indicator has been criticized for not adequately reflecting safety, suggesting that reported access to safe water might be overestimated by billions of people by not accounting for microbial water safety or more fully accounting for sanitary status. So the researchers conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to investigate whether water from improved sources is less likely to exceed health-based guidelines for microbial water quality than water from unimproved sources and to what extent microbial contamination varies between source types, between countries, and between rural and urban areas.

          What Did the Researchers Do and Find?

          The researchers comprehensively searched the literature to find appropriate studies that investigated fecal contamination of all types of drinking-water in low and middle-income countries. The researchers included studies that contained extractable data on Escherichia coli or thermotolerant coliform (the WHO recommended indicators of fecal contamination) collected by appropriate techniques. The authors also assessed studies for bias and quality and used a statistical method (random effects meta-regression) to investigate risk factors and settings where fecal contamination of water sources was most common.

          Using these methods, the authors included 319 studies reporting on 96,737 water samples. Most studies were from sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia, or Latin America and the Caribbean. They found that overall, the odds (chance) of contamination within a given study were considerably lower for “improved” sources than “unimproved” sources (odds ratio = 0.15). However, in 38% of 191 studies, over a quarter of samples from improved sources contained fecal contamination. In particular, protected dug wells were rarely free of fecal contamination. The researchers also found that water sources in low-income countries, and rural areas were more likely to be contaminated (both had odds ratios of 2.37).

          What Do These Findings Mean?

          These findings show that while water from improved sources is less likely to contain fecal contamination than unimproved sources, they are not consistently safe. This study also provides evidence that by equating “improved” with “safe,” the number of people with access to a safe water source has been greatly overstated, and suggests that a large number and proportion of the world's population use unsafe water. As studies rarely reported stored water quality or sanitary risks, the accuracy of these findings may be limited. Nevertheless, the findings from this study suggest that the Global Burden of Disease 2010 may greatly underestimate diarrheal disease burden by assuming zero risk from improved water sources and that new indicators are needed to assess access to safe drinking water. Therefore, greater use should be made of other measures, such as sanitary inspections, to provide a complementary means of assessing safety and to help identify corrective actions to prevent water contamination.

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          Most cited references136

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          A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

          The Lancet, 380(9859), 2224-2260
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            Water, sanitation and hygiene for the prevention of diarrhoea

            Background Ever since John Snow’s intervention on the Broad St pump, the effect of water quality, hygiene and sanitation in preventing diarrhoea deaths has always been debated. The evidence identified in previous reviews is of variable quality, and mostly relates to morbidity rather than mortality. Methods We drew on three systematic reviews, two of them for the Cochrane Collaboration, focussed on the effect of handwashing with soap on diarrhoea, of water quality improvement and of excreta disposal, respectively. The estimated effect on diarrhoea mortality was determined by applying the rules adopted for this supplement, where appropriate. Results The striking effect of handwashing with soap is consistent across various study designs and pathogens, though it depends on access to water. The effect of water treatment appears similarly large, but is not found in few blinded studies, suggesting that it may be partly due to the placebo effect. There is very little rigorous evidence for the health benefit of sanitation; four intervention studies were eventually identified, though they were all quasi-randomized, had morbidity as the outcome, and were in Chinese. Conclusion We propose diarrhoea risk reductions of 48, 17 and 36%, associated respectively, with handwashing with soap, improved water quality and excreta disposal as the estimates of effect for the LiST model. Most of the evidence is of poor quality. More trials are needed, but the evidence is nonetheless strong enough to support the provision of water supply, sanitation and hygiene for all.
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              Causes of outbreaks associated with drinking water in the United States from 1971 to 2006.

              Since 1971, the CDC, EPA, and Council of State and Territorial Epidemiologists (CSTE) have maintained the collaborative national Waterborne Disease and Outbreak Surveillance System (WBDOSS) to document waterborne disease outbreaks (WBDOs) reported by local, state, and territorial health departments. WBDOs were recently reclassified to better characterize water system deficiencies and risk factors; data were analyzed for trends in outbreak occurrence, etiologies, and deficiencies during 1971 to 2006. A total of 833 WBDOs, 577,991 cases of illness, and 106 deaths were reported during 1971 to 2006. Trends of public health significance include (i) a decrease in the number of reported outbreaks over time and in the annual proportion of outbreaks reported in public water systems, (ii) an increase in the annual proportion of outbreaks reported in individual water systems and in the proportion of outbreaks associated with premise plumbing deficiencies in public water systems, (iii) no change in the annual proportion of outbreaks associated with distribution system deficiencies or the use of untreated and improperly treated groundwater in public water systems, and (iv) the increasing importance of Legionella since its inclusion in WBDOSS in 2001. Data from WBDOSS have helped inform public health and regulatory responses. Additional resources for waterborne disease surveillance and outbreak detection are essential to improve our ability to monitor, detect, and prevent waterborne disease in the United States.

                Author and article information

                Role: Academic Editor
                PLoS Med
                PLoS Med
                PLoS Medicine
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                May 2014
                6 May 2014
                : 11
                : 5
                : e1001644
                [1 ]The Water Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America
                [2 ]University of Southampton, Southampton, United Kingdom
                [3 ]WaterAid UK, London, United Kingdom
                University of East Anglia, United Kingdom
                Author notes

                TS chairs the WHO/UNICEF JMP expert working group tasked with developing targets and indicators for enhanced global monitoring of drinking-water post-2015 which commissioned the systematic review to inform its deliberations. JB is a member of the expert working group and is an unpaid advisor to both WHO and UNICEF.

                Conceived and designed the experiments: RB RC JW HY TS JB. Performed the experiments: RB RC HY. Analyzed the data: RB RC. Wrote the first draft of the manuscript: RB. Contributed to the writing of the manuscript: RB RC JW HY TS JB. ICMJE criteria for authorship read and met: RB RC JW HY TS JB. Agree with manuscript results and conclusions: RB RC JW HY TS JB.

                Copyright @ 2014

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

                : 28 September 2013
                : 3 April 2014
                Page count
                Pages: 23
                This work was supported by WaterAid UK on behalf of the Water Working Group of WHO and UNICEF's Joint Monitoring Programme for Water Supply and Sanitation ( www.wssinfo.org). The JMP Water Working Group and the JMP Water Quality Taskforce reviewed the manuscript. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, or decision to publish. The authors alone are responsible for the views expressed in this publication and they do not necessarily represent the decisions or policies of WaterAid UK.
                Research Article
                Biology and Life Sciences
                Applied Microbiology
                Engineering and Technology
                Environmental Engineering
                Water Management
                Medicine and Health Sciences
                Public and Occupational Health
                Global Health
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