The World’s First Global Poop Map Could Help Save Lives

By tracking fecal viruses breeding in our waterways, science takes a major step forward in combating a deadly disease.

Map via Kiulia et. al.

As the picture book says, “everybody poops.”

While that’s certainly a wonderful sentiment to embrace, it’s one that actually has some serious—and seriously dangerous—implications as far as global health is concerned. As terrific as pooping can be when it comes to keeping the human body running smoothly, our fecal byproducts are home to some truly nasty viruses that are annually responsible for thousands of deaths worldwide, especially in developing countries which lack the sanitation systems many of us enjoy at home.

image via (cc) flickr user ajc1

With that in mind, researchers have created a “map of fecal viruses traveling our global waterways” in order to “aid in assessing water quality worldwide.” The poop map is, they claim, the first of its kind, and is part of a study on aquatic fecal contamination, published this spring in the journal Pathogens. What makes this map unique is its reliance on data modeling to track where viruses are concentrated, and how they travel from place to place. Armed with the modeled data from this map, researchers hope to better equip themselves when determining the best method for stemming the proliferation of certain waterborne fecal diseases, and treating those infected—even in places where on-site data monitoring may not be readily available.

A release from Michigan State University, where study co-author Joan Rose works doing water research, explains:

The study focused on rotavirus, a pathogen found in human sewage, which is suspected of causing more than 450,000 deaths globally each year. Rotavirus severity rates are highest among young children under two. Because the disease spreads quickly – and via water – a deeper understanding of the transmission of rotavirus is key to combatting it.

This is a map of fecal viruses across the globe. Red shades indicate severe concentrations of the deadly rotavirus (based on data from approximately year 2010). // Map via Kiulia et. al.

Rotavirus is caused by the ingestion of fecal matter, which in turn leads to intestinal damage, diarrhea, dehydration, and—if left untreated—eventual death. CityLabpoints out that Rotavirus concentration seems to spike in heavily populated urban centers. As you can see, there are incidents of contamination in the Tri-State Area and Los Angeles, as well as high numbers in Nigeria, across Bangladesh, and parts of China, too.

No matter how innovative and groundbreaking, though, a map is not, in itself, a solution. As the study’s authors admit, their immediate goal was to “develop a framework” for studying fecal water contaminants such as the Rotavirus. Putting that framework to use, however, is a much larger undertaking. Still, for those committed to eradicating this deadly, and wholly preventable, disease, this map provides a much-needed place to start.

[via city lab]