Raw Sewage – a goldmine for new viruses

The movie Contagion is still very fresh in my memory and to be honest, it’s one of the few non-horror films that continue to haunt me. Not only because the story is simple and it was effectively told by the film, but the story is so close to reality it was like watching a documentary about how the A(H1N1) virus spread worldwide back in 2009.

We know what raw sewage is and naturally we know it to be a source of diseases and other foul things, literally, but it is only now that scientists have found out that it is rich source of viruses not yet known to man. That adds another another layer of reality to the movie, raw sewage is a gold mine for unknown viruses. Instead of just looking for viruses that jump hosts, from one specie to another, unknown viruses that could cause dreaded, yet unknown diseases are found right underneath our cities and toilets.

The researchers led by Paul Cantalupo of the University of Pittsburgh found out that:

Within the samples, they found 234 known viruses belonging to 26 different viral families. Seventeen of these infected humans, and others are known to target plants, insects, algae and bacteria. They also found evidence of new viruses from 51 different families.

In addition, they had other discoveries:

  • Bacteria-attacking viruses dominated the viral population they found in the sewage, outnumbering the known ones by 30 to 1.
  • Of the viruses that attack more complex organisms, plant viruses dominated.
  • A large number of insect viruses, including those that infect cockroaches, flies and mosquitoes, were present in all samples.
  • They also identified several rodent viruses, including strains closely related to a newly identified rat hepatitis E virus.
  • They detected 17 viruses known to infect humans in the three samples. These viruses included a number that can cause diarrhea or gastrointestinal illness, including adenovirus, astroviruses and Norwalk virus, bocavirus, picobirnaviruses and klassevirus.

With this new goldmine for viruses, scientists have an added resource to further develop our knowledge of viruses, which in turn will further develop our medical technology, more importantly to help combat diseases.

It also reinforces the fact that raw sewage should be treated before it is released into the environment. Thinking of the recent flooding we had because of the previous typhoons, it is very important that our sanitary systems, what ever form we have, is up to the task of holding against typhoons or massive rain so that raw sewage would not mix with flood waters.

Then again, knowing that sad state of our urban planning and sanitation system, we have another good reason to avoid plunging in flood waters, especially in the city.

Image by Kat Masback

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