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Hoping to improve sanitation worldwide, Murphy receives college’s first Gates Foundation grant

The UN estimates that, by 2050, one in four people will live in a country with shortages of fresh water. As it is now, nearly 2 billion people use water sources that are contaminated with fecal matter. The situation is dire: more children die from diarrheal diseases than often-discussed illnesses such as malaria.

More than 80 percent of these deaths are attributable to unsafe water, which also contributes to stunted growth, malnutrition, and decreases in education or, for workers, productivity. The effects of poor sanitation—whether it’s untreated water or lack of access to a latrine—ripples to impact a country in more than just public health.

In an effort to address these issues, Heather Murphy, assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, will work with stakeholders in Uganda and India to improve sanitation conditions as part of a project led by Michigan State University and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—the first such grant received by the College of Public Health.

Led by Joan Rose, Homer Nowlin Endowed Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University (MSU), the project builds off the Global Water Pathogen Project, a collaboration led by Rose and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The GWPP involves more than 200 researchers around the world who are collecting and compiling data on water pathogens in order to develop technology, tools, and information to improve sanitation worldwide.

“Roughly 2.5 billion people in the world don’t have access to improved sanitation,” said Murphy, who traveled to Uganda at the end of June. “They don’t have access to a toilet or a latrine, which has consequences on safe drinking water and environments. These issues aren’t often talked about, but they’re preventable.”

Murphy’s work abroad focuses on Knowledge to Practice (K2P) for Safe Sanitation—in both Uganda and India, she and her colleagues from San Diego State, MSU, Wageningen University and a team of stakeholders on the ground, including the Ugandan National Water and Sewerage Corporation, will explore how they can best apply the information gathered from the GWPP to inform sanitation policy, guidelines and practices. They hope to develop tools that can be used globally to help countries meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) laid out by the United Nations, a series of goals addressing issues with poverty, hunger, health, education, gender equality, and more—including water and sanitation, or SDG6.

In Kampala, Uganda, less than 10 percent of the population has access to a sewer system, and many people in rural areas still resort to open defecation. Murphy will work with various UN organizations, nongovernmental organizations, government agencies, and university academics and researchers that focus on sewage and public health. She and the team will hold workshops and trainings on a series of tools they hope to create, including a mobile local safe sanitation app and mapping visualization tools. In July, they finished the first series of workshops in in Kampala.

After two years of work in Uganda, they will shift their focus to India, where they will test whether these tools can easily transfer between countries.

“We’re hoping that the project can provide a foundation for how you can translate scientific knowledge from one country to another,” said Murphy. “We’ve made it available, but now we’re trying to make it accessible and usable.

Read more about Temple’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics

Photo caption: Job Gava, project team member from the National Water and Sewerage Corporation in Uganda, leading a tour for the K2P research team around the Lubigi Wastewater Treatment Facility in Kampala, Uganda. L to R: Gava, Matt Verbyla, Isaac Musaazi, Temple post-doctoral fellow Innocent Tumwebaze, Joan Rose, Heather Murphy, Nynke Hofstra, Dan Okaali

Posted:  July 27, 2018