Background: Preventive chemotherapy represents a powerful but short-term control strategy for soil-transmitted helminthiasis. Since humans are often re-infected rapidly, long-term solutions require improvements in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH). The purpose of this study was to quantitatively summarize the relationship between WASH access or practices and soil-transmitted helminth (STH) infection.
Methods and findings: We conducted a systematic review and meta-analysis to examine the associations of improved WASH on infection with STH (Ascaris lumbricoides, Trichuris trichiura, hookworm [Ancylostoma duodenale and Necator americanus], and Strongyloides stercoralis). PubMed, Embase, Web of Science, and LILACS were searched from inception to October 28, 2013 with no language restrictions. Studies were eligible for inclusion if they provided an estimate for the effect of WASH access or practices on STH infection. We assessed the quality of published studies with the Grades of Recommendation, Assessment, Development and Evaluation (GRADE) approach. A total of 94 studies met our eligibility criteria; five were randomized controlled trials, whilst most others were cross-sectional studies. We used random-effects meta-analyses and analyzed only adjusted estimates to help account for heterogeneity and potential confounding respectively. Use of treated water was associated with lower odds of STH infection (odds ratio [OR] 0.46, 95% CI 0.36-0.60). Piped water access was associated with lower odds of A. lumbricoides (OR 0.40, 95% CI 0.39-0.41) and T. trichiura infection (OR 0.57, 95% CI 0.45-0.72), but not any STH infection (OR 0.93, 95% CI 0.28-3.11). Access to sanitation was associated with decreased likelihood of infection with any STH (OR 0.66, 95% CI 0.57-0.76), T. trichiura (OR 0.61, 95% CI 0.50-0.74), and A. lumbricoides (OR 0.62, 95% CI 0.44-0.88), but not with hookworm infection (OR 0.80, 95% CI 0.61-1.06). Wearing shoes was associated with reduced odds of hookworm infection (OR 0.29, 95% CI 0.18-0.47) and infection with any STH (OR 0.30, 95% CI 0.11-0.83). Handwashing, both before eating (OR 0.38, 95% CI 0.26-0.55) and after defecating (OR 0.45, 95% CI 0.35-0.58), was associated with lower odds of A. lumbricoides infection. Soap use or availability was significantly associated with lower infection with any STH (OR 0.53, 95% CI 0.29-0.98), as was handwashing after defecation (OR 0.47, 95% CI 0.24-0.90). Observational evidence constituted the majority of included literature, which limits any attempt to make causal inferences. Due to underlying heterogeneity across observational studies, the meta-analysis results reflect an average of many potentially distinct effects, not an average of one specific exposure-outcome relationship.
Conclusions: WASH access and practices are generally associated with reduced odds of STH infection. Pooled estimates from all meta-analyses, except for two, indicated at least a 33% reduction in odds of infection associated with individual WASH practices or access. Although most WASH interventions for STH have focused on sanitation, access to water and hygiene also appear to significantly reduce odds of infection. Overall quality of evidence was low due to the preponderance of observational studies, though recent randomized controlled trials have further underscored the benefit of handwashing interventions. Limited use of the Joint Monitoring Program's standardized water and sanitation definitions in the literature restricted efforts to generalize across studies. While further research is warranted to determine the magnitude of benefit from WASH interventions for STH control, these results call for multi-sectoral, integrated intervention packages that are tailored to social-ecological contexts.