Eliminating water-borne diseases in Kenya

Acclaimed microbiologist chooses Colilert to achieve this goal

Woman holding water testing apparatus

Dr. Robert Metcalf, Professor Emeritus at California State University and founder of International Water and Health Alliances (IWHA), has developed a Portable Microbiology Laboratory that makes water testing in even the most remote areas possible. And he relies on IDEXX Colilert to assure that test results for coliforms and E. coli are accurate.

Dr. Metcalf’s most recent efforts to eliminate water-borne disease have been focused on the Lower Nyakach region of Kenya, where over 40 percent of hospital admissions are the result of contaminated water and lack of sanitation. His goal is to bring that number to zero. Dr. Metcalf says, “There isn’t any reason that in this day and age we should still have people dying because of a lack of clean water.”

His efforts are paying off. Less than a year after providing resources to Lower Nyakach, the number of diarrhea cases dropped by 80% and there were no cases of typhoid fever in the village.

Hospital admissions chart

A 3-step approach to cleaning up the world’s water sources

A three-step approach may be one key to the success of Dr. Metcalf’s program. It starts with teaching, so people understand why testing is important, and it ends with a demonstration so they know how to treat water when it is unsafe. This type of education helps ensure the sustainability of the program.

Step 1: Teach
Dr. Metcalf and his volunteers teach community members the basics of microbiology and train them so they can teach other members of the community. “We demystify microbiology,” explained Dr. Metcalf. “By the end of the training, the villagers feel empowered.”

Step 2: Test
The group then distributes what Dr. Metcalf calls the Portable Microbiology Laboratory (PML). The PML might sound fancy but it’s simply a gallon-sized ziplock plastic bag filled with supplies, including the 10-mL IDEXX Predispensed Colilert test, and materials to test 25 samples for the fecal indicator bacterium Escherichia coli. The PML is making it possible for communities in developing countries to test their local water sources and determine the risk of disease.

“The work that Dr. Metcalf is doing is quite amazing,” said Chun-Ming Chen, Senior Director and General Manager, Water. "He really is making a difference in people’s lives and we are proud to support his efforts not only in Kenya, but all over the world.”

Step 3: Treat
Dr. Metcalf shows the villagers how to treat contaminated water so that it is safe to drink. This is accomplished using one of two low-cost, readily available methods. Villagers can pasteurize the water using a solar cooker or add specified amounts of commercially available bleach.

Dr Metcalf using Colilert to test water in Kenya

Dr. Metcalf uses his Portable Microbiology Lab, or PML, to collect water samples for testing with Colilert.

Providing training and resources at the community level empowers people who live in areas without access to safe water to protect the health of their children, neighbors and loved ones. With the guidance of Dr. Metcalf and his team, more and more individuals are acquiring the knowledge and skills to evaluate their drinking water sources and use available methods to treat the water successfully.

“It’s simple, really,” Dr. Metcalf said. “If you kill the germs, they can’t make people sick.”

The work of Dr. Metcalf and his team of volunteers has, no doubt, contributed to achieving an important 2015 United Nations Millennium Goal: To reduce the proportion of the world’s population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 50%. Thankfully, Dr. Metcalf won’t settle for anything less than 100%. IDEXX is honored that Colilert is helping his group meet this critical need.

There isn’t any reason that in this day and age we should still have people dying because of a lack of clean water.

Dr. Robert Metcalf, Professor Emeritus at California State University and founder of International Water and Health Alliances (IWHA)