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Analyses of drinking water quality during a protracted cholera epidemic in Malawi – a cross-sectional study of key physicochemical and microbiological parameters

Anecdotal evidence and available literature indicated that contaminated water played a major role in spreading the prolonged cholera epidemic in Malawi from 2022 to 2023. This study assessed drinking water quality in 17 cholera-affected Malawi districts from February to April 2023. Six hundred and thirty-three records were analysed. The median counts/100 ml for thermotolerant coliform was 98 (interquartile range (IQR): 4–100) and that for Escherichia coli was 0 (IQR: 0–9). The drinking water in all (except one) districts was contaminated by thermotolerant coliform, while six districts had their drinking water sources contaminated by E. coli. The percentage of contaminated drinking water sources was significantly higher in shallow unprotected wells (80.0% for E. coli and 95.0% for thermotolerant coliform) and in households (55.8% for E. coli and 86.0% for thermotolerant coliform). Logistic regression showed that household water has three times more risk of being contaminated by E. coli and two and a half times more risk of being contaminated by thermotolerant coliform compared to other water sources. This study demonstrated widespread contamination of drinking water sources during a cholera epidemic in Malawi, which may be the plausible reason for the protracted nature of the epidemic.

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