Roundworm infections can be reduced "significantly" by improving the treatment and quality of drinking water in high-risk regions, according to a study conducted by researchers at Tufts University.

The two-year study examined the effects of water quality, sanitation, handwashing and nutritional interventions on rates of intestinal worm and Giardia infections in rural Kenya.

Proper water treatment could cut roundworm infections by 18%. Source: Amy PickeringProper water treatment could cut roundworm infections by 18%. Source: Amy PickeringWater treatment alone accounted for an 18% reduction in infection rates in roundworm (Ascaris) infections. The reduction was 22% when water treatment was combined with improved sanitation and handwashing with soap. None of the interventions reduced the prevalence of Giardia infections among the young children studied.

The researchers said that intestinal worm and protozoan infections affect more than 1 billion children worldwide and are associated with stunted growth and impaired cognitive development. These parasites often live in the soil and contaminated drinking water or fecal-contaminated surfaces and lead to common infections in children in "low resource" areas.

High re-infection rates have prevented school-based mass drug administration programs from controlling the transmission of these parasitic infections. The study authors hypothesized that improved water quality, sanitation, hygiene and/or nutrition could interrupt the environmental transmission of parasites.

The researchers said they were "extremely surprised" that water treatment appeared to be the most effective at reducing roundworm infections.

"Water treatment is a relatively unexplored strategy for intestinal worm control," said Amy Pickering, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Tufts and first author of the study. "Our study suggests that water treatment could complement large-scale deworming medication delivery programs in the global effort to eliminate roundworm infections."

Reinfection rates reach more than 90% after deworming treatment for roundworm infection. Researchers said that a combined approach of mass drug administration and environmental controls (water, sanitation and hygiene) could be critical in controlling infections.