The spread of antibiotic resistant superbugs has been labelled as a “global health emergency” by the WHO. Health experts have already identified this as one of the leading threats to public health, and have urged that new antibiotics be developed to combat the rise of untreatable infections. Scientists have also been emphasizing the importance of reducing the risks, and sea swimmers have been seen for some time as a group at high risk of harbouring these types of infections.

However, despite the known risks to swimmers, new report has shown that suffering are three times more likely to be exposed to antibiotic resistant infections. The report has shown that surfers can swallow up to ten times more sea water than swimmers, and despite efforts to make improvements to the cleanliness of the sea across the UK, there is still a substantial risk of bacteria entering the body.

Even more worryingly, the study shows that bacteria doesn’t only pose a risk of infections, but can cause further DNA resistance to other bacteria individuals might be exposed to. “This research is the first of its kind to identify an association between surfing and gut colonisation by antibiotic resistant bacteria,” said Dr Anne Leonard, of the University of Exeter Medical School, who led the research.

Professor Colin Garner, chief executive and founder of Antibiotic Research UK, the world’s only charity set-up to specifically combat antibiotic resistance, said this was a “pioneering finding” He also warned that the level of antibiotics leaking from sewage and farms into the sea is resulting in “higher antibiotic concentrations than patients being administered antibiotics.”

He added that “Research into new medicines to replace our archaic antibiotics has stagnated and unless new treatments are found, this could be potentially devastating for human health. We know very little about the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria and resistance genes between our environment, farm animals, wild animals and humans. This research helps us understand better the movement of resistant bacteria in surfers.”

Although the focus on the misuse of antibiotics is incredibly important for fighting the spread of antibiotic resistance globally, the researchers in this study wanted to look at the possible environmental causes of the issue.  “We urgently need to know more about how humans are exposed to these bacteria and how they colonise our guts,” Dr Leonard added.

As part of the study into the environmental effects of antibiotic resistance, researchers looked at 273 individuals. Half of the participants were surfers, and all of them were tested for their levels of gut resistance to a commonly used antibiotic “cefotaxime”. Just over 9% of the surfers tested were found to be carrying antibiotic resistant strands of e-coli bacteria. Of the non surfers tested, only 3% were found to be carriers.

Science and policy officer at campaign group Surfers Against Sewage, David Smith, said: “While this research highlights an emerging threat to surfers and bodyboarders in the UK it should not prevent people from heading to our coasts.”

“Recognising coastal waters as a pathway for antibiotic resistance can allow policy makers to make changes to protect water users and the wider public from the threat of antibiotic resistance. We would always recommend water users check the Safer Seas Service before heading to the sea to avoid any pollution incidents and ensure the best possible experience in the UK’s coastal waters.”

A Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs spokesperson said: “The UK has an AMR strategy to ensure appropriate action is taken and we already have achieved positive results in this area. We welcome this research in advancing insights into the issue, and recognise the continuing efforts by British scientists and the Research Councils to further this knowledge.”

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