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UNICEF Innovation

Rapid E. coli Detection

Diarrhoea is one of the main causes of under-5 mortality, with 58% of diarrhoea related diseases attributed to inadequate access to safe water, sanitation and hygiene (WHO/Prüss et al 2014). In an effort to address these challenges, UNICEF provides technical support to governments on water safety planning and water quality monitoring. In addition, UNICEF places a key focus on improving water quality at the household level through improved facilities and better awareness and education. In addition, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) set out specific targets on water quality (Target 6.3), safe and affordable drinking water (Target 6.1), and community management of water resources (Target 6.b).

E. coli is the WHO preferred indicator for measuring faecal contamination of water, and is used by UNICEF and its partners to monitor water quality at the community and household level.  Unfortunately, the current reliable methods to quantify E. coli contamination involve overnight incubation and require specialized training for staff performing the test.  This limits the ability to test drinking water on-site for behavioral change communication and during nationally representative household surveys—two key programmatic activities for UNICEF and its partners that could significantly improve access to clean drinking water for the estimated 1.8 billion people who still rely on drinking water sources that contain evidence of faecal contamination (WHO/UNICEF 2014). 


Conducting water quality testing in the field currently requires multiple, complicated steps.

Challenges to current model: 
Due to the context in which UNICEF works, laboratory testing for E. coli is typically not feasible. Samples must therefore be processed on-site or nearby, typically with limited access to cold chain transport or grid electricity. These methods typically require special training for the staff conducing the tests, and there are often multiple process steps, leaving room for error and contamination of the samples. Currently UNICEF typically uses the following testing methodologies for E. coli testing in field locations:

Portable lab kits

H2S (presence/absence)

Compartmentalized Bag Test (CBT)

Compact Dry Plates

While the above methods can, in most cases, provide accurate information on faecal contamination of water, most require at least 24 hours before accurate results are available.  This combined with the complexity of the tests make it difficult to collect large-scale data on water quality, and challenging to conduct behaviour change programmes with communities. If a suitable product existed, the potential demand would include countries implementing national-scale household surveys, approximately 100 UNICEF-supported surveys per year.  If an average survey covers 50,000 households and 1 in 5 households are tested, this could amount to at least 1 million tests per year procured by UNICEF for this purpose alone. In addition, UNICEF would also use the product in their behavioural change communication programming which targets the 1.8 million accessing sources of contaminated drinking water sources through programmes with partner NGOs and governments in a majority of the countries in which UNICEF works.

Purpose of Project:

UNICEF and its government partners still require faster results, improved accuracy, and more affordable testing products to support their work. As a result, UNICEF is challenging product developers to identify an easy-to-use detection method that can accurately determine faecal contamination in 30 minutes or less. For more information on UNICEF’s needs and requirements, please consult the Target Product Profile (TPP) available at this page.

Latest Updates

UNICEF Supply Division and the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme convened a global stakeholder consultation November 22nd 2016, to discuss the TPP and potential solutions. As a result of feedback from this meeting, the TPP has been revised in conjunction with a technical advisory committee. TPP V2.0 is available at the TPP page here. Suppliers interested in this TPP should register their interest using the sign-up sheet linked to on the TPP page here.



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