Public health surveillance requires the monitoring of waterborne disease, but sensitive and specific detection of relevant incidents is difficult.
The Communicable Disease Surveillance Centre receives information from various sources about clusters of cases of illness in England and Wales. The reporter may suspect that water consumption or recreational water exposure is the route of infection, or subsequent investigation may raise the hypothesis that water is associated with illness.
It is difficult to prove beyond reasonable doubt that such a hypothesis is correct. Water samples from the time of exposure are seldom available, some organisms are difficult to detect and almost everyone has some exposure to water. Therefore, we have developed a method of categorizing the degree of evidence used to implicate water. The categories take into account the epidemiology, microbiology and water quality information. Thus outbreaks are classified as being associated with water either ‘strongly’, ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’.
This system allows a broad database for monitoring possible effects of water and is not confined to the few outbreaks which have been intensively investigated or have positive environmental microbiology. Thus, for reported incidents, the sensitivity of classifying it as water associated should be high but this may be at the expense of specificity, especially with the ‘possible’ association.