Gates Foundation awards $10.9 million to study impacts of sanitation on diseases

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have received a five-year, $10.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to evaluate several interventions to combat diarrheal disease in developing countries.

Dr. Jack Colford, professor of epidemiology at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, will coordinate the project, working with the International Centre for Diarrheal Disease Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B) and Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA).

An estimated 2.2 million children under the age of 5 die from diarrheal diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization. Most of these diseases are thought to be preventable with improvements in sanitation, water quality and hygiene.

Due to the high cost of developing and maintaining large infrastructure projects, such as networked water, there is now a movement toward simpler, alternative methods to improve health in rural areas. However, there is almost no evidence that allows direct comparison of the health benefits or cost effectiveness of these simpler interventions, such as improved latrines, household water treatment and hand washing with soap.

The goal of the new project is to determine how sanitation interventions, delivered alone or as part of combined intervention packages, impact child health and well-being. In addition to improved sanitation, the intervention packages will include drinking water improvements and hand washing solutions. The results have the potential to influence how billions of dollars are directed towards long-term improvements in health and economic outcomes for millions of children each year, said Colford.

“Increasingly, foundations, governments, the World Bank and development agencies such as the MCC (Millennium Challenge Corporation) are demanding evidence of effectiveness when awarding development funds,” said Colford. “Right now, it is unknown whether single interventions are as cost effective as combinations of these interventions. This grant will fund the first large-scale, randomized impact evaluation designed to gather rigorous evidence about this question.”

The study will test the impact of these sanitation, water and hygiene interventions using a large-scale, randomized impact evaluation in Bangladesh and Kenya. These two countries are representative of the two regions that account for the majority of the world’s gastrointestinal disease burden: Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The researchers expect to enroll a total of 23,000 children in the trials, which will be monitored by several institutional review boards.

Of the $10.9 million, about $7.9 million will be subcontracted out to the two field sites. Dr. Stephen Luby, head of the Programme on Infectious Diseases and Vaccine Sciences with ICDDR,B, and Michael Kremer, Ph.D., a research affiliate with IPA, will lead the trials in Bangladesh and Kenya, respectively. They will be joined by a team of experts from various disciplines, including public health, economics, behavioral change, nutrition, cognitive development and tropical enteropathy.