Surfers at higher risk of having antibiotic-resistant E. coli in their digestive tract from swallowing contaminated seawater

According to a new study, dangerous superbug E. coli is spreading among surfers and bodyboarders.

Data from the report has revealed that since regular surfers often ingest contaminated seawater, they are more vulnerable than swimmers. The former can swallow as much as 10 times more seawater compared to the latter. Researchers share that surfers and bodyboarders are “three times more likely to have an antibiotic-resistant E. coli bug in their guts than non-surfers.”

Surfers also have a higher risk of contamination because they are often exposed to seawater that contains bugs from sewage and water run-off from farm crops that were treated with manure. The bugs could be contaminating the water because E. coli is often found in the lower intestine of warm-blooded animals like cows, chickens, and pigs.

This alarming update points to the newest threat posed by “superbugs” that have evolved and are now resistant to antibiotics. Scientists warn that superbugs can kill an individual “every three seconds by the year 2050” if this health concern isn’t addressed immediately. (Related: Study: E.coli grows more powerful when given antibiotics.)

A team of scientists from the University of Exeter has determined that at least nine percent of surfers (or 13 out of 143) were already colonized by the superbug. Meanwhile, only three percent (four out of 143) of the 130 non-surfers tested were colonized by E. coli.

Dr. Anne Leonard from the University of Exeter Medical School, who is also the lead researcher for the study, cautions that since antimicrobial resistance has been globally acknowledged as “one of the greatest health challenges of our time,” medical experts must now concentrate on preventing the spread of resistance via natural environments. She called for further research to find out how individuals are exposed to superbugs and how they colonize our guts. Dr. Leonard added that this research is the first to establish a link between surfing and gut colonization by bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics.

Superbugs are viewed as a looming threat because they could be ushering an age where more people who are antibiotic resistant can now die from “simple infections” such as pneumonia. One possible reason that superbugs are spreading fast are the doctors who prescribe “too many antibiotics” that allow the bacteria in our gut to evolve to resist the drugs.

The study observed 300 people, 50 percent of which often surf the coastline. The researchers then checked the participants for an E. coli strain that is resistant to a “commonly used and clinically important antibiotic” called cefotaxime.

Dr. Will Gaze, a research supervisor from the University of Exeter, explained that they do not wish to stop people from spending more time in the water since surfing is an acceptable form of exercise that also lets individuals connect with nature. He added that they only want people to know about “the risks involved so that they can make informed decisions about their bathing and sporting habits.”

The World Health Organisation reminds us that we could be “entering an era in which antibiotics no longer work to kill simple, and previously treatable, bacterial infections.” Antibiotic resistance will eventually make infections like “pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood poisoning, gonorrhea, and food and waterborne diseases” deadly. There’s also the possibility that antibiotics can no longer prevent patients from getting infections while undergoing medical procedures like joint replacements and chemotherapy.

David Smith, science and policy officer at the marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage, shares that while the findings of the study seem alarming, people don’t have to actively avoid U.K. coasts. Water quality in the area has greatly improved in the last three decades, and seawater in the U.K. is “some of the cleanest in Europe.” Smith concluded, “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.”

Read more about E. coli and other superbugs at

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