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Contamination of drinking water

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Contamination of drinking water

improving European health improving European health

UEA research into how diseases such as the norovirus and E.coli are spread has helped shape World Health Organisation guidelines.

Diarrhoeal disease kills 760,000 children under five each year. Microbial contamination of drinking water is one of the most prominent causes worldwide.

Its spread is a major problem in both developed and developing countries, costing the UK alone around £1.5 billion each year.

Researchers at UEA investigated how water supply systems spread the disease and found that small-scale systems are much more likely to spread microbial disease than larger systems. The findings have influenced World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines on the benefits of testing water supplies.

Lead researcher Prof Paul Hunter, from Norwich Medical School, said: “Contaminated drinking water is one of the biggest causes of stomach infections. Symptoms are nasty and include diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pains, nausea, headache, and fever.

“It is the second leading cause of death in children under five, particularly in the developing world – yet it is both preventable and treatable.

“Diarrhoea is also surprisingly common among some children in the UK. Our research shows that children who drink from contaminated private water supplies in the UK are as likely to pick up stomach infections as children in developing countries.”

Prof Paul Hunter is currently leading a €9 million EU-funded research project to improve the safety of European drinking water.

The five-year Aquavalens project will develop and apply more rapid methods of detecting viruses, bacteria and parasites in water before they can make people sick.

A further cause of diarrhoeal and other gastrointestinal diseases is contaminated coastal waters where people swim. Researchers at UEA have been addressing this too and helped draw up improved guidelines on classifying ‘recreational water’, which underpin current UK law on bathing water quality and have been adopted by WHO. 

Research was funded by the European Commission and the World Health Organisation.

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Key academics Key academics

Professor Paul Hunter
Clinical Professor, Norwich Medical School

Research interests

The epidemiology of emerging infectious disease especially that linked to environmental factors. Most interest in spread of infection by drinking water, but also recreational water contact and food. Interest in zoonotic diseases. Conducting case-control and other epidemiological studies in the UK, Europe and the developing world. Interest in risk assessment and risk communication


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