Troubled water: Antibiotic-resistant superbugs are spawning in our rivers

 

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We don’t wish to spoil anyone’s summer holiday in our beautiful countryside, but that pretty dappled river meandering through the fields may not be all it appears. Armageddon could be brewing on its bed.

As exclusively revealed by this newspaper on Saturday, scientists at the University of Warwick have discovered superbugs resistant to some of the most powerful antibiotic drugs lurking among the empty jam jars and discarded boots at the bottom of the river Sowe, near Coventry.

How did they get there? A sewage plant upstream of the deadly bugs treats waste coming from many different sources, including hospitals and farms as well as households, mixing them up in the process of treating them. Instead of eliminating the toxic properties of the waste, this allows them to share genes which can deactivate or disarm antibiotics that would normally kill them. It’s a bit like prison: intended to reform villains, our penal institutions often send them out armed with new and potent tricks.

The researchers underline that there is nothing particularly sinister about the river Sowe – it’s merely local to Warwick University and therefore convenient for research. Nor is the sewage plant in question badly managed, so similar phenomena could be observed in many of our rivers. The problem is exacerbated in stormy weather, when floods force plants to release sewage completely untreated.

A grave hazard is brewing down in those turbid depths. As David Cameron warned recently, if the war on the rise of superbugs is lost, the world could be “cast back into the dark ages of medicine”, where masses died from what are now considered trivial, easily treatable infections. It’s a problem with multiple dimensions. One solution would be for sewage plants to separate the waste they treat at source – a major investment, but one with important benefits for us all.

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