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OBJECTIVES: Escherichia coli is the standard water quality indicator for diarrhoea risk. Yet, the association between E. coli and diarrhoea is inconsistent across studies without a systematic assessment of methodological differences behind this variation. Most studies measure water quality cross-sectionally with diarrhoea, risking exposure misclassification and reverse causation. Studies use different recall windows for self-reported diarrhoea; longer periods increase potential outcome misclassification through misrecall. Control of confounding is inconsistent across studies. Additionally, diarrhoea measured in unblinded intervention trials can present courtesy bias. We utilised measurements from a randomised trial of water interventions in Bangladesh to assess how these factors affect the E. coli-diarrhoea association. METHODS: We compared cross-sectional versus prospective measurements of water quality and diarrhoea, 2-versus 7-day symptom recall periods, estimates with and without controlling for confounding and using measurements from control versus intervention arms of the trial. RESULTS: In the control arm, 2-day diarrhoea prevalence, measured prospectively 1 month after water quality, significantly increased with log10 E. coli (PR = 1.50, 1.02-2.20). This association weakened when we used 7-day recall (PR = 1.18, 0.88-1.57), cross-sectional measurements of E. coli and diarrhoea (PR = 1.11, 0.79-1.56) or did not control for confounding (PR = 1.20, 0.88-1.62). Including data from intervention arms led to less interpretable associations, potentially due to courtesy bias, effect modification and/or reverse causation. CONCLUSIONS: By systematically addressing potential sources of bias, our analysis demonstrates a clear relationship between E. coli in drinking water and diarrhoea, suggesting that the continued use of E. coli as an indicator of waterborne diarrhoea risk is justified.

Original publication




Conference paper

Publication Date





2 - 11


E. coli , E. coli , Bangladesh, diarrhoea, enfermedad transmitida por el agua, maladie d'origine hydrique, medida de calidad del agua, mesure de la qualité de l'eau, riesgo de diarrea, risque de diarrhée, water quality, waterborne disease, Bangladesh, Cross-Sectional Studies, Developing Countries, Diarrhea, Drinking Water, Escherichia coli, Humans, Prospective Studies, Public Health Surveillance, Reproducibility of Results, Time Factors, Waterborne Diseases