Researchers have taken the war on superbugs to a surprising battlefield -- surfers’ butts. Specifically, their rectums.
The World Health Organization considers superbugs, or bacteria resistant to antibiotics, the "single greatest challenge in infectious diseases today." These stubborn bacteria are increasingly being found in our oceans thanks to marine pollution, especially from human sewage.
Because surfers swallow more ocean water than other beachgoers -- roughly 10 times more than ocean swimmers -- scientists are hoping to study surfers' guts in order to shed light on how superbugs affect humans.
The nonprofit Surfers Against Sewage is working with scientists from the University of Exeter Medical School in the United Kingdom to conduct the aptly named Beach Bums study, asking volunteers to pick up kits, swab their rectums, and send the samples to the European Center for Environment & Human Health in Cornwall, England.
According to Anne Leonard, a Ph.D. student at the University of Exeter and a lead researcher on the study, studying surfers' guts "will shed much needed light on the effects of marine pollution."
"We’ve already shown that this water may contain antibiotic resistant bacteria," she said in a statement, "but we have no idea how this might affect the microbes that live in our guts, or how it could impact upon health."
Researchers are hoping to collect samples from 150 surfers and bodyboarders who hit the waves at least three times a month in waters off England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as from 150 nonsurfers who can serve as a control group. Then they will analyze the samples to see if surfers ingest more superbugs than nonsurfers, and to see how human bodies are affected by these bacteria.
"If, and it’s only if at this stage, we can show an elevated level of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in a surfer’s gut bacteria, we can make a strong case to prevent untreated sewage entering the sea and for improved land management practices to stop runoff from farmland impacting water quality," Andy Cummins, the campaigns director for Surfers Against Sewage, told The Huffington Post. "This case could be adopted by water users and health bodies all over the world."
Cummins said the scientists hope to have all the samples collected and logged by the end of the summer, and plan to study them over the winter.