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Health officials in Alaska point to wastewater sampling as a useful tool for disease monitoring. • Alaska Beacon

The Alaska Division of Public Health hopes to expand wastewater monitoring programs that have proven useful in detecting outbreaks of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, according to a report.

Testing at Anchorage’s John M. Asplund Wastewater Treatment Facility, the municipality’s main wastewater treatment plant, has shown a spike in COVID-19 cases in January 2023, just days before patient cases were confirmed by health labs. said a bulletin recently issued by the division’s epidemiology department.

The information gleaned from testing at the Anchorage plant is an example of how wastewater samples have been used in multiple Alaskan communities to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in the community to monitor.

In Alaska, several communities besides Anchorage also use wastewater samples for that purpose, as well as for detecting other diseases. Sites include Juneau, Fairbanks and Bethel. The tests are funded in part by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Anchorage is the only community in Alaska that is part of a national WastewaterSCAN network that can detect additional pathogens, such as the pathogens of hepatitis and MPox. The others are part of the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System.

The Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. started in Bethel. in October 2022 with testing wastewater samples for viruses that cause COVID-19, influenza and RSV, the epidemiology bulletin said. That surveillance has helped health officials time their flu vaccinations and the distribution of antiviral medications to combat RSV, the bulletin said. In December, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., with the help of the CDC, initiated a project to include testing for tuberculosis and norovirus in its wastewater monitoring program, the bulletin said.

The Department of Public Health is working to expand wastewater monitoring across the state as part of a strategy “to better prepare for future pandemics such as COVID-19,” the bulletin said. The division plans to soon establish a working group with wastewater managers, health officials, laboratories and other parties, the bulletin said.

There are some special Alaska challenges, the bulletin said. For example, many communities do not have centralized sewerage. Geographic remoteness also poses difficult logistics and high costs for sampling, transportation to a testing site and actual testing, the bulletin said. Another complication is Alaska’s weather, as melted snow and rainwater can enter the water systems being treated, mixing pathogens from elsewhere, the bulletin said.

Although it has seen increased use during the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater testing as a disease monitoring strategy is not new. In the United States, the practice dates back to the 1930s, when scientists began examining wastewater for the presence of poliovirus. The earliest documented use of that type of testing may date back to the mid-19th century, when physician John Snow discovered the bacteria that caused cholera in water at a specific water pump in London.

In addition to tracking the spread of disease, wastewater sampling can also be used to track community use of opioids.

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