Just as I’m getting ready to go on vacation (that will hopefully involve some time on the beach), I read an article in the latest edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases about seagulls and beaches as reservoirs of multidrug-resistant E. coli (Simoes et al 2010). In this study, the researchers collected seagull poop from beaches in Porto, Portugal and tested them for the presence of extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) E. coli, a highly drug resistant form of this common bacterium. Thirty-two percent (32%) of the E. coli they isolated were ESBL, a pretty impressive rate in wild birds that would not be directly exposed to antibiotics. Various E. coli strains were present, including some that can cause severe disease.

In some respects this is pretty concerning, and in other respects not too surprising. We know that birds in various (including remote) regions can carry multidrug-resistant bacteria. The ability of wild birds to carry these bacteria, combined with the wide geographic range that some bird species have, raises concern about the role of birds in the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, as well as the potential for contracting a nasty drug-resistant infection while on the beach. Birds certainly have the ability to help spread certain types of bacteria over wide ranges. However, their overall role is probably very limited compared to the role played by people and (domestic) animals. For birds to become carriers of these bacteria, they have to pick them up from somewhere, which presumably doesn’t occur until the bacteria have built up to a good level in people and/or animals. I doubt that birds account for many human infections. Antibiotic exposure through antibiotic residues in water or food sources could also play a role in the presence of these bacteria in birds, but that’s an area that’s not well understood. 

So, how does this influence my time on the beach? Not much. I wasn’t really planning on having contact with seagull poop, and this paper just reinforces that basic precaution. Other basic measures such as keeping open sores covered, avoiding cuts by wearing shoes in rough areas or sand that might be contaminated with sharp objects, avoiding contamination of food with sand, avoiding areas with obvious bird poop contamination, and hand washing before eating and after leaving the beach are easy to do.