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Development of a novel photonic detector for the microbial analysis of drinking water in Rwanda

Drinking water is a basic human need, but at the start of the 21st century more than 1.1 billion people in developing countries still lack access to clean water. This causes plenty of water-related health problems. Diarrheal diseases are the most common water-related diseases, caused by bacteria such as Vibrio Cholera , Shigella and Escherichia coli . Each year, these diarrheal episodes claim the lives of 1.8 million children (under the age of five); this makes diarrheal diseases the 2nd (following pneumonia) leading cause of child morbidity and mortality.

The majority of pathogenic microorganisms are distributed in the water through animal and human feces. These pathogens are generally present at very low concentrations in environmental water, which makes them difficult to detect. To overcome this, one uses certain indicator bacteria , such as E. coli , to detect fecal contamination. E. coli is a well known microorganism that is present in high concentrations in the feces of warm-blooded animals and humans.

The most used international guideline for the verification of the microbial quality of drinking water is set by the World Health Organization, and dictates that E. coli must not be detectable in any 100ml sample of drinking water. This standard defines the detection limit of detecting methods; an ideal detector should be able to detect at least one cell per 100ml of water . This is a very high sensitivity that not many microbial detecting methods achieve. The standard existing techniques require laboratory equipment, are relatively expensive and time consuming (at least 24h). Thus, there is a lack of fast, real-time monitoring tools that allow directly assessing drinking water quality and taking appropriate actions if necessary.

The goal of this research is to overcome these problems by developing a low-cost, fast and miniaturized photonic system that can be feasibly exploited by villagers in Rwanda to detect E. coli in situ, for water quality assessment.

For the local field and laboratory work we cooperate with the department Ecologie des Systèmes aquatique (ESA) of the Université Libre de Bruxelles . With their help we built up expertise in collecting and analyzing water samples with standards detecting techniques.

The field work abroad will mainly be done in Rwanda, with the support of the Ministry of Health of Rwanda . The laboratory work there will be done in close cooperation with the Rwandan Bureau of Standards (RBS) and the University of Rwanda .

Research Area


Main researcher(s)

Jana Vanderheijden Jana Vanderheijden
+32 2 629 18 13

Other people involved

Heidi Ottevaere Heidi Ottevaere
+32 2 629 34 51

Trevor Garrett Trevor Garrett
+32 2 629 13 81

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Hugo Thienpont
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Nadia Cornand

Nadia Cornand
+32 2 791 68 52

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