Wastewater epidemiology is a field of study in which the water from sewer systems is surveyed to generate data about the incidence of diseases in a geographical area. This technology was first used at scale during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS).
The National Wastewater Surveillance System is used to detect localized outbreaks of COVID-19 early, which allows public health officials to mobilize other tools such as PCR testing for individuals in areas where an outbreak is occurring. This technology is used in areas of Massachusetts, California, and Maine among other states.
Public health officials are currently investigating the feasibility of using wastewater epidemiology strategies to detect outbreaks of Monkeypox, a virus that is spreading rapidly in the United States and other parts of the world. Like the virus that causes COVID-19, the monkeypox virus can shed genetic material from infected people through their feces, urine and saliva.
In theoretical models published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology Letters, researchers have estimated that wastewater technology could be used to detect as few as seven infections per 100,000 people. This technology could be instrumental in detecting an outbreak of Monkeypox before it has the chance to spread to a level that is difficult to control.
The researchers recommend implementing this technology quickly in the United States where the average case rate of Monkeypox has continued to increase over the last couple of months.
Future applications of this technology could include detection of other contagious diseases, drug consumption, or overall health. Wastewater epidemiology data can also be used to determine how a virus is changing over time and whether variants of a virus are spreading.