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Swimmers and surfers asked to take part in NUI Galway study to see if they have superbugs

Surfer Easkey Britton and Liffey Swim champ Paul O’Flynn are supporting the project by urging people to sign up to be tested.

Dr Liam Burke in the water at Blackrock, Salthill.
Dr Liam Burke in the water at Blackrock, Salthill.
Image: Aengus McMahon/NUI Galway

A TEAM OF researchers at NUI Galway is asking swimmers and surfers to take part in a project to find out if they have picked up superbugs from the water.

Testing kits are sent out in the post, and take around 10 minutes to complete.

Dr Liam Burke, co-investigator on the project, told TheJournal.ie that the faeces sample provided will be used to collect the bacteria that live in their gut and test them for resistance to antibiotics.

The questionnaire sent out will ask about participants use of natural recreational waters and risk factors that may be associated with antibiotic resistant bacteria living in their gut (eg, exposure to animal waste, working in a healthcare facility).

Researchers are hoping to recruit 300 people to take part – one group of 150 sea swimmers, surfers and people who regularly use the sea, lakes or rivers for recreation, along with a second group of 150 people who rarely take to the water.

Anyone aged 18 or over who lives on the island of Ireland can take part; you can find out more, or sign up, at the PIER website.

Surfer Easkey Britton and Liffey Swim champ Paul O’Flynn are supporting the project by urging people to sign up to be tested.

About the study

The PIER study (Public Health Impact of Exposure to antibiotic Resistance in recreational waters) is being launched by the Antimicrobial Resistance and Microbial Ecology Research Group at the University, and is funded by the EPA.

A key part of the project will be understanding how superbugs get into human populations, particularly to help scientists learn how to control the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria.

It is hoped that the findings of this study will contribute to improving policy regarding
environmental monitoring of antibiotic resistance and the release of waste containing
superbugs to recreational waters.

A similar study in England and Wales, the Beach Bum Survey, found 6.3% of surfers were colonised with antibiotic resistant bacteria vs 1.5% of non-surfers.

When superbugs cause problems

Professor Dearbháile Morris, Principal Investigator on the PIER project  said that in healthy people, “antibiotic resistant bacteria behave very similarly to other common bugs, they live harmlessly on the skin, in the nose or in the bowel”.

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“This is called colonisation. As long as a bug stays on the skin or in the bowel, it usually does not cause a problem,” she said.

However, once a superbug gets into a wound, into the bladder or into the blood, it can cause an infection that can be difficult to treat.

“This mostly happens in sick or vulnerable people with weaker immune systems, such as those in intensive care, the very old or the very young, and special antibiotics are then required for treatment, as ordinary antibiotics do not work.”

Professor Morris continues: “Unfortunately, superbugs can transfer easily from healthy
colonised people to vulnerable people. The more people who are colonised with antibiotic
resistant bugs, the higher the risk that these bugs will spread to vulnerable people and
cause serious infection.”

Dr Liam Burke added: “Some superbugs are now very common in the environment due to increased antibiotic use in humans and animals and the release of sewage, manure and effluent containing antibiotics and antibiotic resistant superbugs, which can end up in our lakes, rivers and seas.

Although bathing waters are routinely tested for some bacteria, they are not tested for antibiotic resistant bacteria, so we don’t really know to what extent they are present.

“PIER will look into whether people who regularly use Irish waters for recreation are at risk of becoming colonised with superbugs.”

For more information, or to register to take part, click here.

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