Norovirus infections are among the major causes of acute gastroenteritis worldwide. In Germany, norovirus infections are the most frequently reported cause of gastroenteritis, although only laboratory confirmed cases are officially counted. The high infectivity and environmental persistence of norovirus, makes the virus a relevant pathogen for water related infections. In the 2017 guidelines for potable water reuse, the World Health Organization proposes Norovirus as a reference pathogen for viral pathogens for quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA). A challenge for QMRA is, that norovirus data are rarely available over long monitoring periods to assess inter-annual variability of the associated health risk, raising the question about the relevance of this source of variability regarding potential risk management alternatives. Moreover, norovirus infections show high prevalence during winter and early spring and lower incidence during summer. Therefore, our objective is to derive risk scenarios for assessing the potential relevance of the within and between year variability of norovirus concentrations in municipal wastewater for the assessment of health risks of fieldworkers, if treated wastewater is used for irrigation in agriculture. To this end, we use the correlation between norovirus influent concentration and reported epidemiological incidence (R²=0.93), found at a large city in Germany. Risk scenarios are subsequently derived from long-term reported epidemiological data, by applying a Bayesian regression approach. For assessing the practical relevance for wastewater reuse we apply the risk scenarios to different irrigation patterns under various treatment options, namely “status-quo” and “irrigation on demand”. While status-quo refers to an almost all-year irrigation, the latter assumes that irrigation only takes place during the vegetation period from May - September. Our results indicate that the log-difference of infection risks between scenarios may vary between 0.8 and 1.7 log given the same level of pre-treatment. They also indicate that under the same exposure scenario the between-year variability of norovirus infection risk may be > 1log, which makes it a relevant factor to consider in future QMRA studies and studies which aim at evaluating safe water reuse applications. The predictive power and wider use of epidemiological data as a suitable predictor variable should be further validated with paired multi-year data.


Probabilistic quantitative microbial risk assessment (QMRA) studies define model inputs as random variables and use Monte-Carlo simulation to generate distributions of potential risk outcomes. If local information on important QMRA model inputs is missing, it is widely accepted to justify assumptions about these model inputs by using external literature information. A question, which remains unexplored, is the extent to which previously published external information should influence local estimates in cases of nonexistent, scarce, and moderate local data. This question can be addressed by employing Bayesian hierarchical modeling (BHM). Thus, we study the effects and potential benefits of BHM on risk and performance target calculations at three wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) in comparison to alternative statistical modeling approaches (separate modeling, no-pooling, complete pooling). The treated wastewater from the WWTPs is used for restricted irrigation, potable reuse, or influences recreational waters, respectively. We quantify the extent to which external data affects local risk estimations in each case depending on the statistical modeling approach applied. Modeling approaches are compared by calculating the pointwise expected log-predictive density for each model. As reference pathogens and example data, we use locally collected Norovirus genogroup II data with varying sample sizes (n = 4, n = 7, n = 27), and complement local information with external information from 44 other WWTPs (n = 307). Results indicate that BHM shows the highest predictive accuracy and improves estimates by reducing parameter uncertainty when data are scarce. In such situations, it may affect risk and performance target calculations by orders of magnitude in comparison to using local data alone. Furthermore, it allows making generalizable inferences about new WWTPs, while providing the necessary flexibility to adjust for different levels of information contained in the local data. Applying this flexible technique more widely may contribute to improving methods and the evidence base for decision-making in future QMRA studies.

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