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Teens fall ill after swim in River Avon

A number of teenagers were reported to have fallen seriously ill after swimming in the River Avon at the Old Bathing place.

While there is only one river in England judged as clean enough for humans to swim in, the River Wharfe in Ilkley, visitors and Stratfordians have been taking the plunge at the welcoming spot at the Fisherman’s car park for decades.

But after a mum posted on social media about her son being hospitalised after a half-hour swim at the beauty spot on Thursday, 22nd July, a number of other people also said they had likewise become ill following a dip there, and serious questions about the quality of the river water were raised.

Merry Lewis-Medard told the Herald how her 17-year-old son, Christian, had been hospitalised after he accidentally swallowed river water, and that two more of his friends who had also swum there had been poorly.

“He went swimming with his friends last Thursday and began feeling sick on Friday afternoon,” said Merry. “He vomited for 12 hours, and we took him to A&E at the Queen Elizabeth, which is near to where I live. He began struggling to breath, and the doctor suggested it could be a nasty bug from contaminated river water. He came home after spending Saturday there, but have had to keep an eye out in case he developed sepsis or E-coli symptoms.

“He’s a very fit healthy lad, a strapping 6ft 1in tall – he goes to football academy but this knocked him off his feet.”

When she heard Christian was going swimming with friends, Merry’s first thought was to worry about drowning hazards. She said: “I hadn’t thought about getting ill from the water. I used to swim in rivers as a kid without any problems.

Fisherman’s Car Park in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Mark Williamson F24/7/21/2971. (49673968)
Fisherman’s Car Park in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Mark Williamson F24/7/21/2971. (49673968)

“I am now left wondering whether Christian was made ill by the state of the river, possibly it’s been affected by the heat. People should be made aware. There is something not quite right and it would be nice to see that it’s being checked out just in case. What if people go to hospital and there is something in there and they develop a long-term illness?”

The Herald questioned a number of agencies involved in monitoring or maintaining the river.The most startling information came from the Rivers Trust which detailed the most recent statics, from 2020, about sewage spills in the River Avon.

Specifically for Stratford, the Milcote waste water treatment plant spilled 49 times for 583 hours in 2020. Bidford-on-Avon sewage treatment works spilled even more – for 2,249 hours in 2020 on 162 occasions. Both of these are operated by Severn Trent.

Rivers Trust spokesperson Christine Colvin explained: “In areas of high spilling sewer overflows there is a greater risk of being exposed to raw sewage pollution and the pathogens that are associated with it.

“These numbers give an indication of the performance of these sewage works and don’t indicate whether they spilled recently. However, the high spilling works are likely to struggle during intense rainfall events as we’ve seen recently and people should avoid swimming after heavy rain.”

A spokesperson for Severn Trent responded: “We need to stress that the River Avon is not a bathing river, so there’s always a risk. Swallowing/ingesting any kind of river water can pose a risk as it’s not drinking water or sterile – there are also many other factors, like agriculture and farms and run-off from roads etc that also make up what goes into the river, and as we had dry weather, there’s been no storms so our overflows would not be operating.”

Suspected contamination of rivers should be reported to the Environment Agency. It told the Herald that it hadn’t received any reports connected with this stretch of the Avon, but offered the following statement.

“Making sure we have clean rivers is an absolute priority and we are working urgently to reduce the environmental impacts of all sources of pollution – including those from agricultural practices and road run-off.

“There are specific regulations in place in England to protect our rivers. We are aware there is more work to do and we are hard at work alongside our key catchment partners to implement a range of interventions to tackle the sources of pollution in our rivers.

“Anyone can become unwell when swimming in open waters. To help reduce the risk of becoming ill, Public Health England and the Environment Agency offer advice in their ‘swim healthy’ guidance, available on the www.gov.uk website, before making any decision on swimming.”

Severn Trent had been considering the Avon at Stratford as part of its project to make safe bathing places, however this is now being explored on the River Leam in Warwick. Although Severn Trent has confirmed it will be spending £65million on improving and cleaning up the river between Stratford and Coventry.

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