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As global climate warms, new study looks to minimize risks of waterborne disease

The management of water resources in large, mixed-use reservoirs in low- and middle-income countries poses major challenges for water quality and waterborne disease.

A UC Berkeley School of Public Health research team has been awarded a $2 million, 3-year grant by the National Science Foundation to develop new approaches for understanding and responding to changes in waterborne infectious disease risks that come with a changing and more variable climate.

“Waterborne diseases cause millions of deaths each year, mostly among children, and more than two billion people in tropical and subtropical regions have limited access to clean water and adequate sanitation,” says Justin Remais, associate professor of Environmental Health Sciences at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health and principle investigator of the project. “Improving our understanding of how pathogens spread as climate conditions change can help to better manage—and minimize—the future risks of waterborne disease as the global climate warms.”

The project, Analytical methods for estimating the joint climatological-social drivers of water quality and supply in contrasting tropical zones: Ecuador and China, will use models to investigate how specific environmental and social dynamics—from floods and extreme temperatures to mass migration and social development—impact the spread of pathogens through drinking water supplies. Insights gained through predictive models can lead to more effective prevention of waterborne diseases, while informing social and economic policies that increase resilience to climate change, such as the targeted development of water and sanitation infrastructure.

Remais returned to his alma mater, UC Berkeley, as a faculty member in January 2016 with two members of his research team—assistant specialists Chris Hoover and Philip Collender, and he has since established a research team with more than 10 students and scientific staff. Hoover and Collender are collaborating with student, staff, and postdoctoral researchers in the group to analyze complex, spatial-temporal environmental exposure and health data from contrasting regions in Northern Ecuador and Western China, in order to understand how pathogens spread in changing environments. Others in the group will model the dynamics of waterborne disease transmission using mathematical models, which can shed light on the pathways through which pathogens spread within and between populations.

“This is one of the first projects to examine fine scale social dynamics, hydrodynamics, pathogen fate and transport, and waterborne illness, tracing relationships all the way from the microbiological level to population health,” says Remais, “and we’re excited to draw upon the tremendous strengths at Berkeley in environmental science and engineering, epidemiological methods, data science, and global health.”

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