Surfers and swimmers run superbug infection risk

Surfers ingest a relatively large quantity of seawater, which makes them more susceptible to falling ill. Picture: Getty
Surfers ingest a relatively large quantity of seawater, which makes them more susceptible to falling ill. Picture: Getty
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SURFERS, sea swimmers and kayakers could face an increased danger of being infected by antibiotic-resistant superbugs, according to new research.

Scientists at the University of Exeter have found watersports enthusiasts risk picking up antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a result of swallowing contaminated seawater.

Surfers and swimmers were found to be most at threat because of their tendency to ingest the highest amount of water.

Studies focused on a strain of the Escherichia coli (E coli) bug that is resistant to an important class of antibiotics called third-generation cephalosporins (3GCs).

E coli is found in the intestines of humans and animals. Most types are harmless, but some can cause serious illness and even death.

Infections from resistant bugs are rising due to increasingly widespread use of antibiotics, both in human and veterinary medicine, and pose a serious threat to public health.

Although only 0.12 per cent of E coli identified in coastal waters and rivers flowing on to beaches belonged to the strain, this is enough to present a “potential risk”, the researchers say.

The data suggests more than 6.3 million watersports sessions that took place in England and Wales in 2012 resulted in at least one type of resistant microbe being taken in.

“We know very little about how the natural environment can spread antibiotic-resistant bacteria to humans, or how our exposure to these microbes can affect health,” said study leader Dr William Gaze, a microbiologist at the university.

“People are exposed to antibiotic-resistant bacteria in many ways, through person-to-person contact, via food and as a result of international travel.

“Our research establishes recreational use of coastal waters as an additional route of exposure.

“With millions of people visiting beaches in England and Wales each year, there is a risk of people ingesting 3GC-resistant E coli and it looks like water-users’ exposure to all resistant bacteria could be even higher.”

Analysis also showed close links between the risk of exposure to resistant bacteria and levels of cleanliness at any particular beach.

The researchers say this highlights the importance of the European Union’s Bathing Water Directive, which aims to ensure high standards of water quality.

The bacteria get into the sea through pollution from sewage and agricultural run-off.

But the scientists are insisting that people should not avoid taking a dip in the sea for fear of picking up the germs.

Co-researcher Anne Leonard added: “Although this research has established that coastal waters are a potential source of exposure to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, we are not recommending that people stop visiting the beach. Exercise and enjoyment of the natural environment has many established benefits for health and well-being, and this kind of research will help us ensure people can still make the most our coastal resources.”

Antibiotic resistance occurs when a microbe acquires a genetic mutation that makes it invulnerable to the actions of agents that were once effective, making treatment difficult.

The revised Bathing Water Directive came into force in March 2006 and was enacted in Scotland by the Bathing Waters Regulations, which came into effect in May 2008. Key features include better public information and tighter microbiological standards to be met by this year.

The most recent report from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency showed all of Scotland’s 83 recognised bathing waters achieved mandatory standards of cleanliness in 2013.

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