The fight against water-borne disease -- one of the most serious threats to child health in developing countries -- will receive a major boost thanks to groundbreaking work by an international consortium led by the University of Bristol and supported by a $13 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The consortium is developing Aquatest, the world's first low-cost, easy-to-use diagnostic tool giving a clear, reliable indication of water quality.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that water-borne disease causes 1.8 million deaths annually, of which 1.5 million are of children under five. Over one billion people lack access to safe water. Most do not even know their water is unsafe and are at risk of potentially fatal diarrhoeal diseases.

The Aquatest project aims to give individuals and communities the information they need to identify unsafe water and to empower them to work towards improvements in water supply.

Aquatest involves a small, hand-held device, similar in concept to the home pregnancy-testing kit. The test results will be displayed as coloured bands and may show, for example, that water is safe for adults to drink but not for children, the elderly or the sick.

Knowing that water is unsafe will encourage treatment before use and motivate changes in water management and sanitation. Accompanying information will include advice on taking action such as chlorinating water, checking for contamination or improving water safety at the communal supply point.

This will be the first off-the-shelf, low-cost and easy-to-use test that will detect the presence of E. coli, the internationally recognised indicator of faecal contamination of water. The sensitivity of the test will enable detection of ten E. coli colonies in 100ml of water -- equivalent to finding a single coffee bean in 4,000 Olympic-size swimming pools.

Demand for an inexpensive but reliable water-testing device that ordinary people can use is high in developing countries, not only from governments but also from NGOs and aid agencies. Emergency-relief operations dealing with the aftermath of disasters such as the recent floods in Mexico, the Asian tsunami and the Pakistani earthquake would also benefit from low-skill, dependable water testing carried out on the spot.

The Aquatest project will be led by Dr Stephen Gundry, Director of the University of Bristol's Water and Health Research Centre (WHRC). The University will be leading a large, interdisciplinary team with expertise ranging from engineering, product development and microbiology to consumer preferences and behaviours and water policy and regulation. The research consortium includes WHO and other experts worldwide.

Dr Gundry said: "It is early days, but following a preliminary grant from the European Commission we have now secured support from the Gates Foundation. This will enable the Aquatest consortium to take this project forward and to make a real difference to the lives of a great many people in the developing world."

It is anticipated that within ten years, low-cost water-testing devices will be in widespread use in 80 per cent of developing countries for water testing by industry professionals, communities and individuals, leading to improved water management and a potential decline in water-borne diseases.

Charles Lyons, Director of Special Initiatives, Global Development Program at the Gates Foundation, said: "We are pleased to fund this pioneering project led by the University of Bristol. There is a clear and compelling need to strengthen demand for safe water in developing countries, and we believe that the Aquatest will provide people with critical information on the safety of their water. In turn, this work will inform and support efforts to ensure that the poor have access to safe drinking water."

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Notes:

The device will be trialled in communities in India and South Africa to assess usability and impact. These countries have been selected because they are located in the two regions with the greatest water quality challenges. They both have very poor provinces with low levels of access to safe water, but they also have industrial and policy environments that could support the widespread production and adoption of the Aquatest device in a way that could optimise local health and economic benefits.

A factsheet on water and sanitation, Biographies of the spokespeople, an image of the prototype devices and mages of the Aquatest project to date are all available at bristol.ac/aquatest/media.

WHO data used above is taken from World Health Report 2004.(Geneva: World Health Organization)

Preparatory research on Aquatest was funded by the European Union's FP6: Global Change and Ecosystems Programme.

The Aquatest research consortium is led by the University of Bristol and includes the University of California Berkeley, PATH, WHO, the Aquaya Institute, the Health Protection Agency, the University of Cape Town, the University of Southampton and the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland.

The Water and Health Research Centre forms part of the University of Bristol's Institute for Advanced Studies.

About the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Guided by the belief that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation works to help all people lead healthy, productive lives. In developing countries, it focuses on improving people's health and giving them the chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty. In the United States, it seeks to ensure that all people -- especially those with the fewest resources -- have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Based in Seattle, the foundation is led by CEO Patty Stonesifer and co-chair William H. Gates Sr., under the direction of Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett.

Source:
Dara O'Hare
University of Bristol

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