Many of us go to the beach to get away from crowds, cell-phones, and cigarettes, but increasingly, the beach is becoming just one more place where the toxic crush of civilization can’t be avoided. Now a study has found that antibiotic-resistant MRSA, which causes dangerous staph infections that won’t go away, can be caught from swimming in the ocean or even from sitting on the sand.
The research involved 1300 beachgoers, half of whom sat on the sand at a popular South Florida beach. The other half dunked three times in the ocean water. Afterwards, samples of water surrounding the swimmers revealed that 37 percent of them had been exposed to the Staphylococcus aureus microbe, which causes staph infection, and three percent had contact with a dangerous strain of the microbe MRSA. Although none of the subjects actually contracted MRSA after their beach escapade, the potential for infection certainly exists.
According to research director Dr. Lisa Plano of the University of Miami, “MRSA is in the water and potentially in the sand. This constitutes a risk to anyone who goes to the beach and uses the water … Most of us won’t get infected but it only takes one infected person to spread [MRSA to others].”
The MRSA threat is greatest in subtropical waters, such as in Florida and Hawaii, where temperatures allow the microbes to thrive. Scientists have known for a while that MRSA can colonize in water, but this is the first evidence that the bacteria actually lingers in ocean water after being sloughed off from other swimmers.
Dr. Plano explains, “Our study found that if you swim in subtropical marine waters, you have a significant chance, approximately 37 per cent of being exposed to ‘staph’. This exposure might lead to colonization or infection by waterborne bacteria which are shed from every person who enters the water. People who have open wounds or are immune-compromised are at the greatest risk of infection.”
Contracting MRSA at the beach isn’t like, for instance, picking up a case of sand fleas. MRSA kills 19,000 people in the US alone annually. In fact, 20 percent of those who get MRSA infections die from them. Although it typically starts as a skin infection, MRSA can spread to the lungs, causing pneumonia and other deadly diseases.
In fact, reports of beach-related MRSA have been trickling in for years. A 2004 article in the Environment News Service reported a steady stream of MRSA cases developing in people after swimming at Florida beaches, but at the time, the Florida medical community denied that beaches could be the source of the infections. Lindsay Hodges, who was then a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health, had said, “MRSA is not a reportable infection in Florida. It is very unlikely MRSA infections are coming from sea water.” And Howard Rodenburg, M.D., director of the Volusia County Department of Health, blamed dirty fishermen. “I don’t perceive they are getting infections from contact with the ocean. I think the bacteria are colonizing within the human community on fishing boats,” he said, “Fishermen in general have poor hygiene in a close-quartered environment.”
But the current research shows that being hygiene-challenged has little to do with the MRSA threat at beaches. Dr. Alan Tice, an expert in infectious diseases at the University of Hawaii, reports that, “We have found in Hawaii as many as 100 MRSA colonies per liter of sea water. We think it is human activity related. When people are on the beach, rates rise in the daytime and are lower at night.”
The best protection against beach-borne MRSA, then, seems to be to avoid swimming at crowded beaches when you have open cuts or when your immune system is weakened. Also, the researchers suggest washing thoroughly with soap and water both before going to the beach — to avoid passing along any microbes living on you — and after swimming, to shed any bacteria clinging to you. (Apparently, they haven’t seen the recent studies indicating that washing doesn’t necessarily reduce the number of germs on the skin.) As I’ve written before–given the fact that we share germs virtually every time we go out in public, you would be wise to keep your immunity levels high by taking an immunity-boosting formula…and if you do feel an infection coming on, take large doses of a natural antipathogenic cocktail.