Surfers and bodyboarders more likely to have antibiotic resistant E-coli in guts

By: Clare Fischer
Date posted: 15 January 2018

New research has revealed that regular surfers and bodyboarders are three times more likely to have antibiotic resistant E. coli in their guts than non-surfers.

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This research highlights how important it is to continue to reduce the amount of pollution reaching our seas and to look at how we can change our practices on land to achieve this.

Rachel Wyatt,
MCS Water Quality Programme Manager

The Beach Bums study asked 300 people - half of whom regularly surf the UK’s coastline - to take rectal swabs as surfers swallow 10 times more sea water than sea swimmers.

Scientists at the University of Exeter wanted to find out if swallowing made them more vulnerable to bacteria that pollute seawater, and whether those bacteria are resistant to an antibiotic.

The study compared faecal samples from surfers (recruited to the study by partners Surfers Against Sewage) and non-surfers to assess whether the surfers’ guts contained E. coli bacteria that were able to grow in the presence of cefotaxime, a commonly used and clinically important antibiotic.

Cefotaxime has previously been prescribed to kill off these bacteria but some have acquired genes that enable them to survive this treatment.

The study found that 13 of 143 (9%) of surfers were colonised by these resistant bacteria, compared to just 4 of 130 (3%) of non-surfers swabbed. That meant the bacteria would continue to grow even if treated with cefotaxime.

Rachel Wyatt, MCS Water Quality Programme Manager says the World Health Organisation has warned that in the future current antibiotics may no longer be effective at curing previously treatable infections: “Water quality at UK coastal bathing sites has improved significantly over the last 30 years, due to better sewage treatment and improved land management practices, with almost 90% receiving Good or Excellent results at the end of last summer.”

Despite extensive operations to clean up coastal waters and beaches, bacteria which are potentially harmful to humans still enters the coastal environment through sewage and waste pollution from sources including water run-off from farm crops treated with manure.

“There is also increased awareness of the risks associated with short term pollution, when more bacteria may be present in the sea due to heavy rainfall, and many beaches now have daily pollution forecasts during the summer to allow beach users to make informed choices about when and where they go in the sea.

“This research highlights how important it is to continue to reduce the amount of pollution reaching our seas and to look at how we can change our practices on land to achieve this,” said Rachel Wyatt.

Researchers also found regular surfers were four times as likely to harbour bacteria that contain mobile genes that make bacteria resistant to the antibiotic.

The scientists said this finding was significant because the genes can be passed between bacteria - potentially spreading the ability to resist antibiotic treatment between bacteria.

Dr Anne Leonard, who led the research, said: “Antimicrobial resistance has been globally recognised as one of the greatest health challenges of our time, and there is now an increasing focus on how resistance can be spread through our natural environments.

“This research is the first of its kind to identify an association between surfing and gut colonisation by antibiotic resistant bacteria.”

Dr Will Gaze, who supervised the research, added: “We are not seeking to discourage people from spending time in the sea, an activity which has a lot of benefits in terms of exercise, wellbeing and connecting with nature.

“It is important that people understand the risks involved so that they can make informed decisions about their bathing and sporting habits.

Lauren Eyles, MCS Beachwatch Manager and keen surfer, says it’s not something you think about when in the water: “We all know the common risks of going into the ocean wherever you live but like most keen surfers, it wouldn’t stop me from going in regularly. Rather, it highlights how important it is for our oceans to be clean from the mass influx of pollutants going into the water”.

Actions you can take

  1. Only flush the 3Ps - meet the unflushables
  2. Join the fight against the 'unflushables'
  3. Make sure popular swimming beaches are protected
  4. Check out water quality before you head to the beach
  5. Find out about Blueprint for Water

Did you know?…

Plastic has been found in the stomachs of almost all marine species including fish, birds, whales, dolphins, seals and turtles

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be 6 times the size of the UK

UK seas and shores are a place for leisure, sport, and a holiday destination for millions annually