Water is essential to life, but many people do not have access to clean and safe drinking water and many die of waterborne bacterial infections. In this review a general characterization of the most important bacterial diseases transmitted through water—cholera, typhoid fever and bacillary dysentery—is presented, focusing on the biology and ecology of the causal agents and on the diseases’ characteristics and their life cycles in the environment. The importance of pathogenic Escherichia coli strains and emerging pathogens in drinking water-transmitted diseases is also briefly discussed. Microbiological water analysis is mainly based on the concept of fecal indicator bacteria. The main bacteria present in human and animal feces (focusing on their behavior in their hosts and in the environment) and the most important fecal indicator bacteria are presented and discussed (focusing on the advantages and limitations of their use as markers). Important sources of bacterial fecal pollution of environmental waters are also briefly indicated. In the last topic it is discussed which indicators of fecal pollution should be used in current drinking water microbiological analysis. It was concluded that safe drinking water for all is one of the major challenges of the 21st century and that microbiological control of drinking water should be the norm everywhere. Routine basic microbiological analysis of drinking water should be carried out by assaying the presence of Escherichia coli by culture methods. Whenever financial resources are available, fecal coliform determinations should be complemented with the quantification of enterococci. More studies are needed in order to check if ammonia is reliable for a preliminary screening for emergency fecal pollution outbreaks. Financial resources should be devoted to a better understanding of the ecology and behavior of human and animal fecal bacteria in environmental waters.
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