In 1921, at age 39, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who would later be elected the 32nd president of the United States, was diagnosed with polio (poliomyelitis). His symptoms included fever, gastrointestinal issues, numbness, and leg and facial paralysis. The disease left him paralyzed from the waist down, relying on a wheelchair and leg braces to walk.
At the height of the polio epidemic in 1952, more than 3,000 people died of polio in the United States, and 20,000 more people suffered paralysis. Pictures of the era show children in special hospital wards, inside ominous-looking iron lungs, while “recovered” children played on the grounds of hospitals wearing leg braces.
In 1938, Roosevelt founded the March of Dimes, which funded the development of the Salk polio vaccine. Two years after the introduction of the Salk vaccine in 1955, polio cases in the US dropped by 90%. In fact, sustained polio transmission has been absent from the US for nearly 40 years; according to the CDC, the last case of wild poliovirus in the US occurred in 1979.
When Kasia Slipko started graduate school at Vienna University of Technology, Institute for Water Quality and Resource Management, she was interested in studying antibiotic resistant microbes in wastewater. For three years, she evaluated different wastewater treatment methods to find out how to remove antibiotic resistant bacteria. But in the spring of 2020, her research took an unexpected turn. That was when the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, caused by the rapid spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Kasia soon found herself at the forefront of another exciting field: using wastewater to monitor viral disease outbreaks.
The fall of 2020 was like no other, especially for universities. The COVID-19 pandemic hit most of the world in the spring, forcing schools and businesses to close. For months, people worked from home and schools switched to online classes. When fall came, universities had a difficult decision to make. Do they have students and staff come back to campus for in-person classes? With students living together in close proximity in dormitories, an outbreak could quickly get out of hand. How can the university monitor and control the spread of the virus to ensure everyone’s safety?
This was when Robert Brooks started getting calls. He’s the Technical Director and Operations Manager at Microbac Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Microbac is a network of privately owned laboratories that provide testing services for food products, environmental samples and the life science industry. Robert has been in the lab industry for 25 years and has established a reputation for taking on difficult problems. “We really try to go that extra mile to help clients solve their issues. That has made a name for us out there. When people have odd-ball issues, they give us a call cause we’re going to take a look at it from a couple different viewpoints and take a step-by-step approach,” he says.
Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Sameer Moorji, Director, Applied Markets.
Even as countries are now gradually starting to reopen after lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Researchers around the world continue to find new ways to monitor, prevent and treat the disease. One new way of monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks relies on a somewhat unexpected source: sewage water.
In March 2020, researchers at the KWR Water Research Institute found the presence of SARS CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples collected near Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and several other sites in Netherlands. The result came within a week after the first case of COVID-19 in the country was confirmed. This study opened the door to the possibility of using wastewater-based epidemiology to determine population-wide infections of COVID-19.
What is Wastewater-based epidemiology?
Wastewater based epidemiology (WBE), or sewershed surveillance, is an approach using analysis of wastewater to identify presence of biologicals or chemicals relevant for public health monitoring. WBE is not new, as wastewater has previously been used to detect the presence of pharmaceutical or industrial waste, drug entities (including opioid abuse), viruses and potential emergence of super bugs. In fact, several countries have been successful in containing Polio and Hepatitis A outbreaks within their geographic locations.
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