UWM Tracks Prevalence of Respiratory Viruses through Wastewater Surveillance
August 28, 2023: The UWM School of Freshwater Sciences is tracking the prevalence of COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses in the community through its wastewater surveillance program.
The program, which began at the height of the pandemic, collects wastewater samples from Milwaukee-area sewage treatment plants and analyzes them for traces of viruses. By examining the wastewater, researchers can track how prevalent the virus is in the community and identify emerging variants.
The program has been recognized as a National Center of Excellence for Wastewater Surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How does wastewater surveillance work?
Wastewater surveillance works by collecting samples of wastewater from sewage treatment plants. The samples are then analyzed for traces of viruses. The viruses are detected by looking for their genetic material, or RNA.
The amount of virus RNA in the wastewater measures how prevalent the virus is in the community. This information can be used to track the spread of the virus and identify emerging variants.
Why is wastewater surveillance essential?
Wastewater surveillance is essential for tracking the spread of respiratory viruses, including COVID-19. It is critical during high transmission, when traditional surveillance methods, such as testing, may be less effective.
Wastewater surveillance can also be used to identify emerging variants of the virus. This information can inform public health interventions, such as vaccination and contact tracing.
What are the benefits of wastewater surveillance?
Wastewater surveillance has several benefits:
- It can be used to track the spread of the virus in real-time.
- It can be used to identify emerging variants of the virus.
- It is less expensive than traditional methods of surveillance, such as testing.
- It can track the virus in hard-to-reach populations, such as homeless people and undocumented immigrants.
What are the limitations of wastewater surveillance?
Wastewater surveillance also has some limitations:
- It cannot be used to diagnose individual cases of the virus.
- It can be affected by factors other than the presence of the virus, such as the amount of water used and the type of sewage treatment used.
- It is not as sensitive as traditional surveillance methods, such as testing.
How can people use the information from wastewater surveillance?
Individuals and public health officials can use the information from wastewater surveillance to make decisions about their health and safety. For example, people can use the information to decide whether to attend significant events or to visit vulnerable populations. Public health officials can use the information to target vaccination and contact tracing efforts.
The future of wastewater surveillance
Wastewater surveillance is a promising new tool for tracking the spread of respiratory viruses. As the technology develops, it will likely become an even more critical tool for public health.