Surfers are around three times more likely to have a gut full of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, according to a new study from the University of Exeter. This bacteria doesn't usually cause problems because it’s held in check by the body’s immune system, but the finding is an insight into how fast superbugs are spreading, how dirty UK’s seawater is, and just how much of it surfers are drinking.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The study asked 300 people to take a swab sample from their own rectums. Of that number, 150 people regularly surfed in beaches around the UK, while the other 150 were a random control sample. Scientists then analysed all 300 poo samples for E. coli bacteria, and when found, treated the bacteria with an antibiotic called Cefotaxime to see if it would survive. In previous years, Cefotaxime was a reliable way to kill pretty much all gut bacteria, but some varieties have recently developed genes allowing them to survive.
The study, published January 14, revealed that nine percent of surfers had gut bacteria resistant to Cefotaxime, compared to just three percent of the control group.
What seems to be happening here is that surfers are gulping down more seawater than most swimmers. In fact, the University of Exeter researchers found that surfers were ingesting around 10 times more seawater water than sea swimmers, which introduces waterborne bacteria into the body.
This bacteria is coming from sewage runoff from both cities and farms, meaning it contains bacteria from the stomachs of humans and animals. And a lot of that bacteria is increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
“Antimicrobial resistance has been globally recognised as one of the greatest health challenges of our time,” wrote research leader Dr Anne Leonard in a University of Exeter press release. “And this research is the first of its kind to identify an association between surfing and gut colonisation by antibiotic resistant bacteria.”
So, while at first glance the study seems to highlight how gross it is to go surfing in the UK, it’s actually delivering a far more serious message about the failing state of antibiotics globally. The World Health Organisation calls antibiotic resistance—the process by which bacteria evolve to resist antibiotics—”one of the biggest threats to global health, food security, and development today.”
The reasons bacteria are quickly developing immunities are pegged on antibiotic over-prescription from doctors, patients not taking a full course of antibiotics, and the unfettered use of human drugs used in livestock.
Then, as the organisation points out, “the spread of resistance is further exacerbated by travel and population movement, making it easier for drug-resistant forms of a disease to spread to more people, and from one location to another.”
So while it's certainly concerning that there’s so much raw sewage in our oceans, the real concern is that our antibiotics are failing.
Oh, and that surfers are drinking weird amounts of seawater.