Photo: Courage Kosi Setsoafia Saba. University for Development Studies, Ghana

Using waste water to prevent infectious diseases

Wednesday 16 Mar 16


Frank Møller Aarestrup
Professor, Head of Division
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 81


Rene S. Hendriksen
Professor, Head of Research Group
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 88

Waste water samples from all over the world are arriving at National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, to reveal how many disease-causing microorganisms and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria the world's population carries around in their guts. This is the essence of a project which aims to help develop a monitoring system that can be used to detect and prevent infectious diseases and provide important information in the fight against resistant bacteria, viruses and parasites. The project is carried out in cooperation with the World Health Organization, WHO.

Up to 58 million people die annually around the world according to the WHO and more than one in four deaths are caused by an infectious disease. Being able to identify disease-causing microorganisms and antimicrobial resistant bacteria quickly and accurately is vitally important in order to detect and react to disease outbreaks.

Waste water contains important information

However, there is currently only very limited information about the global occurrence and transfer of infectious diseases and resistance. In order to increase this knowledge the National Food Institute in cooperation with the WHO has begun analyzing sewage waste water from more than 70 collection points around the world. 

"The project could help pave the way for a paradigm shift in disease surveillance."

Sewage systems are an important source of disease-causing microorganisms particularly in densely populated areas with poor infrastructure. During the project two litres of waste water from each waste water treatment plants will be analyzed using whole genome sequencing, which allows for a disease-causing microorganism’s entire DNA profile to be mapped simultaneously.

”The project will show whether it is possible to quickly and relatively cheaply generate large quantities of data from around the world, which can accurately show what disease-causing microorganisms are prevalent in a particular area and how many bacteria are resistant to antimicrobial treatment,” Professor Frank Møller Aarestrup from the National Food Institute explains.

Possible paradigm shift

”The project could help pave the way for a paradigm shift in disease surveillance,” Frank Møller Aarestrup adds.

”A global surveillance system can provide us with knowledge about the mechanisms that cause diseases worldwide, as well as how the bacteria are transmitted to and between humans. This knowledge can then be used to facilitate early intervention through targeted initiatives in order to save lives and prevent diseases from spreading - locally or globally," Frank Møller Aarestrup explains.

Data can fx be used to manage diseases which threaten to spread beyond a country’s borders and develop into pandemics, such as antimicrobial resistance, Ebola, measles, polio or cholera.

Read more

The National Food Institute and DTU Systems Biology head up the EU project COMPARE with 28 European partners, which aims to make it possible to exchange and interpret information in real time about disease-causing microorganisms from around the world and compare this with other relevant information such as clinical and epidemiological data. Several COMPARE partners are part of the waste water project.

Read about the COMPARE project in the National Food Institute’s press release from 20 January 2015: Large EU project to head up global fight against infectious diseases.

The National Food Institute and DTU Systems Biology have previously trialed new ways of collecting data on the global occurrence of disease-causing microorganisms and antimicrobial resistance. Read fx the institute’s press release from 19 August 2015: Toilet waste provides knowledge about diseases’ global transmission routes.
17 APRIL 2021