Earlier this week news websites from around the world lit up with headlines which claimed, according to a new study, surfers were three times more at risk of contracting antibiotic resistant superbugs than those who never venture into the sea.
The study, conduced by researchers at Exeter uni, examined the bacteria living inside the guts of a group of British surfers and a random control group of non-surfers, using rectal swabs in conjunction with what it dubbed ‘The Beach Bum Survey’ (get it?)
After the damning prognosis reported in the media, we decided to investigate the findings a little more closely, firstly, because the headlines all seemed a tad sensationalist, and secondly because we resented being told we were more at risk than our non-surfing pals by a study with a pun in its core methodology.
Instead of reading the press release, we thought we’d dive right into the meat of it. It was extremely dense, filled with jargon (still no idea what blaCTX-M is) and more complex acronyms than you could shake a stick at, but since the north westerlies have returned our schedules were clear, so we plowed on through, and we think we’ve uncovered a few caveats that the MSM (we can do acronyms too) neglected to mention when they were telling us we’re all probably going to die because of our wave sliding habits.
Firstly, the researchers state in the introduction that while the strain of E.coli identified in the surfers guts is resistant to the antibiotics previously used to treat it, it is, in the UK at least, still almost always treatable by another antibiotic (called Carbapenems).
We also spotted that the sample was made up of a mixture of stand-ups, spongers and body surfers, with the latter groups undoubtedly gulping down more than their fair share of water, skewing the results for the rest of us.
The sample size is also pretty small; of the 143 surfers tested, 19 had their gut colonised by antibiotic resistant bacteria, compared to 6 of the 130 control group of non surfers. However of those 19, none of these surfers had actually been infected by the bacteria they were harbouring- they were simply marked out as being more liable to infection in the future, should they ‘develop a health condition… that makes them more susceptible to infections’.
So- even if you’re one of the 13% who end up with the bacteria living in you, there’s only a small chance you’ll end up with a hard to treat infection. As the study pointed out, the real problem lies in the fact that surfers can introduce these dangerous bacteria into a population filled with people who might be more vulnerable to being infected by them.
In terms of how where you surf affects your risk, the sample data turns out only to be relevant for the most fairweather surfers among us, as the water samples were collected through what they term ‘the bathing season’ (defined as mid-May to the end of September).
The results of this test revealed that ‘the east’ had the highest number of antibiotic resistant bacteria present in its sample, closely followed by the north east and the north west with Wales, the South West and the South East all recording fairly low numbers while Yorkshire and Humber had none at all!
Despite the overall risk actually being lower than what was made out by the mainstream press, the study does still raise important points about water quality, and the problems we could all face when antibiotic resistant superbugs become more prevalent- an issue described by the Chief UK Medical officer as an ‘apocalyptic threat’.
Flippancy aside, it is of course imperative that we continue to campaign at every opportunity to for sewage free seas and support those, like SAS, leading the fight, especially since it isn’t just our own health we could be jeopardising.
Cover: Lets fight to keep the lineups sewage free, because it’s usually best when it’s pouring with rain! Photo @lugarts