BACKGROUND: Household water treatment can improve the microbiological quality of drinking water and may prevent diarrheal diseases. However, current methods of treating water at home have certain shortcomings, and there is evidence of bias in the reported health impact of the intervention in open trial designs.
METHODS AND FINDINGS: We undertook a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial among 240 households (1,144 persons) in rural Democratic Republic of Congo to assess the field performance, use and effectiveness of a novel filtration device in preventing diarrhea. Households were followed up monthly for 12 months. Filters and placebos were monitored for longevity and for microbiological performance by comparing thermotolerant coliform (TTC) levels in influent and effluent water samples. Mean longitudinal prevalence of diarrhea was estimated among participants of all ages. Compliance was assessed through self-reported use and presence of water in the top vessel of the device at the time of visit. Over the 12-month follow-up period, data were collected for 11,236 person-weeks of observation (81.8% total possible). After adjusting for clustering within the household, the longitudinal prevalence ratio of diarrhoea was 0.85 (95% confidence interval: 0.61-1.20). The filters achieved a 2.98 log reduction in TTC levels while, for reasons that are unclear, the placebos achieved a 1.05 log reduction (p<0.0001). After 8 months, 68% of intervention households met the study’s definition of current users, though most (73% of adults and 95% of children) also reported drinking untreated water the previous day. The filter maintained a constant flow rate over time, though 12.4% of filters were damaged during the course of the study.
CONCLUSIONS: While the filter was effective in improving water quality, our results provide little evidence that it was protective against diarrhea. The moderate reduction observed nevertheless supports the need for larger studies that measure impact against a neutral placebo.