New UH research could lead to quicker detection of outbreaks

New UH research could lead to quicker detection of outbreaks
Authorities are looking at new ways to track bacteria by testing wastewater. (Image: Hawaii News Now/file)

MANOA, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Researchers based in Hawaii may be close to finding and tracing outbreaks of harmful bacteria, like salmonella, more efficiently.

A study, which was conducted by the University of Hawaii and the state Department of Health, says bacterial information collected while surveying a community's wastewater matches data collected by state health laboratories. Some think the monitoring of wastewater would be an improvement over current tracking methods.

"When we are trying to monitor the infectious diseases in a community, it is predominantly done by a clinical approach," said UH Professor Tao Yan, who is an author of the study.

Yan says the current method of tracking bacteria outbreaks "takes a while." He says patients first need to report to their doctor, then the doctor needs to take a sample, and once that sample is analyzed it needs to be reported to the Department of Health.

The professor says it sometimes takes months to get disease outbreak information.

"When you have an infectious disease outbreak you need to know right away so you can implement counter measures," Yan said.

Researchers started by monitoring salmonella in wastewater at community treatment plants. When the data was compared with those from the Hawaii Department of Health, a correlation was found between the concentration of the water and the cases of salmonella reported to the department.

"If we can collect information from those treatment plants, then we would have a way to find those disease outbreaks in near real time," Yan said.

He believes that one day, the process can be used to monitor other pathogens and even antibiotic resistance.

Yan says the study proves wastewater monitoring is feasible, but there is a long way to go before anything can be implemented, citing technological and infrastructure challenges.

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