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UNICEF Innovation

Rapid E. coli Detection

Diarrohea is a leading cause of under-five mortality, with 58 percent of cases attributed to inadequate access to safe water. UNICEF is working with developers to identify an easy-to-use, rapid detection method to determine faecal contamination in water


In 2017 UNICEF published a Target Product Profile (TPP), revised in 2019 to specify rapid E.Coli detection needs and requirements.

Product clarifications beyond the TPP are available here.






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.  A rapid E. coli test could empower individuals and local communities to monitor and manage their water quality, ensuring their own health and safety. Similarly, data collected on unsafe water could enable governments to make evidence-based policies and take timely, preventative actions at a national scale. 

The project

The rapid E. coli detection project aims to empower communities and government partners with key information on water quality, allowing them to treat unclean water and identify areas for improvement in water contamination.

Due to the context in which UNICEF operates, laboratory testing for E. coli is usually not feasible. Samples must be processed on-site or nearby, often 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 uses the following 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 billion people accessing sources of contaminated drinking water through programmes with partner NGOs and governments in a majority of the countries in which UNICEF works.

In 2016, UNICEF launched a Target Product Profile (TPP) to guide industry to develop products that can accurately determine faecal contamination as rapidly as possible. The document was revised in late 2017, incorporating the feedback collected during a Stakeholder Consultation held in November 2016.

Related information

Can we know if water is safe in real time? December 2016
Innovations for water quality monitoring, September 2016

UNICEF Target Product Profile webpage



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