Water bodies thought to be safe might be harboring a dangerous bacteria. A new study led by Prof. Dearbháile Morris and Dr. Louise O’Connor at the School of Medicine, National University of Ireland Galway, Ireland, has revealed the presence of harmful E. coli bacteria in recreational water bodies around Ireland. These include beaches, seawater, rivers, and lakes rated as Excellent as per EU guidelines. The research is due to be presented at this year’s European Congress on Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID).
Escherichia coli, commonly known as E. coli, are a diverse group of bacteria usually found in our food, environment, water, and intestines of people and animals. Most strains of E. coli are harmless; however, some can cause diarrhea, urinary tract infection, and respiratory illness.
Some strains of E. coli cause disease by producing a toxin called Shiga. This specific bacterial strain is known as Shiga toxin-producing E. coli or simply STEC. Symptoms caused by STEC infection vary by person; it includes severe abdominal cramps, diarrhea, sometimes bloody stools, and vomiting. Symptoms usually occur after 3 to 4 days after exposure to the bacteria. Most people recover in a period of 5 to 7 days, and few experience severe infections and occasionally life-threatening.
As part of the research, researchers analyzed 75 samples from various water bodies around Ireland that are designated as excellent quality as per EU guidelines. The result is a high occurrence of STEC strain in the samples tested. Overall 65% contained STEC genetic markers. River samples were at the top with 93%, followed by lake waters at 75% and seawater at 56%. For many years, Ireland has had the highest number of human STEC infection among European Union states. 2017 statistics show, the country had ten times the EU average of STEC infection.
According to Professor Morris, this is the first research to study the STEC infection in recreation water around Ireland. In general, water quality is assessed by estimating the number of E. coli in 100 ml of water over a period, usually ranging from May to September. The study highlights the limitations of such assessment as it doesn’t consider the potential pathogenicity of the E. coli variants. There is a need for further investigation not just in Ireland but globally to ascertain the scale of the problem.
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