Plastic containers in the range of 5–20 L are widely used – especially in rural African settings – to collect, transport and store water for domestic use, including drinking, bathing and hygiene. The pathogen content of the waters in these containers has not been adequately characterized as yet. This paper presents the primary findings of a synoptic survey of drinking water quality samples from these containers and involved collection of bacterial indicator and pathogenicity gene data. In total, 571 samples of a variety of waters were taken in rural communities in South Africa and the Escherichia coli numbers measured. Of the E. coli positive samples, 46% (n = 148) were screened for the presence of E. coli pathogen gene markers. Though synoptic, the survey provided many insights into the issues that drove the study. Container use markedly degraded water quality as judged by indicator counts, even where improved water supply services were in place. Household container use also appeared to promote regrowth or contamination of containers with pathogenic E. coli strains. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) analysis also showed that the diversity of potential pathogenic E. coli carrying virulence genes was great. All seven genes screened for (Ial, Stx1, Stx2, EaeA, Eagg, ST, LT) were found in the waters, alone or as mixtures (number of different combinations = 31) including those characteristic of the more dangerous invasive and haemorrhagic E. coli strains. Given the central role of containers in the management of water supply to rural communities, it is clear the microbiology of these waters requires much further characterization.

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