The presence of antibiotic resistant bacteria in a Manitoba First Nation's drinking water is a concerning trend, a microbiologist says. 

"Based on what we see, the health of the community members would be at a very high risk here," Dr. Ayush Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Medical Microbiology at the University of Manitoba said. 

Kumar was part of a study published in American Society for Microbiology scientific journal this week which showed an alarming number of antibiotic resistant genes in source drinking water on a northern Manitoba fly-in First Nation. 

The community name has not been released but Kumar said they have been informed. 

Kumar's team had been testing water in about six First Nation communities and they were all showing extremely high amounts of fecal bacteria. The World Health Organization and Health Canada guidelines say that there should be zero fecal bacterial in 100 millilitres of water but Kumar said they found up to 10,000 colony forming units in their samples. 

"Very, very high number when it's supposed to be zero," Kumar said. 

The group became much more concerned when they began testing for antibiotic resistant genes which creates bacteria that leads to serious health concerns including prolonged infections and death. The bacteria has changed so that antibiotics no longer work in people who need them to treat infections.

The team tested one community and Kumar said they were shocked. 

"We were able to detect resistant genes, multiple resistant genes, in pretty much every single sample that we tested," he said. 

Although not yet proven, Kumar said it's likely there is a correlation between the rates of resistant genes and the extremely high rates of infections on First Nations. 

"Infections on First Nation reserves are much, much higher, bacterial infections, in our First Nation reserves than people living outside reserves," he said. 

"Is this one of the contributing factors to that? Perhaps it is." 

He said as they continue the tests in more communities, he expects to find more antibiotic resistant bacteria.

"[We] see a trend in pretty much every single community that we have tested - bacteria, the water quality is very, very poor," he said.  

The study said one in every five First Nations reserves are under a drinking water advisory, "often due to unacceptable microbiological quality."

Community has water treatment plant

The community where the tests took place was not under under a boil water advisory, Kumar said, likely because there is a water treatment plant. 

Water tests usually take place at the treatment plant and the scientists found that there was no bacteria and an adequate amount of chlorine in the water at the plant. Kumar said that means the contamination is happening somewhere else. 

"As soon as the water gets to households, either through pipes or if it's stored in cisterns or tanks, we see high numbers of bacteria as well as these genes," Kumar said. 

They don't know how the bacteria is getting in but Kumar said it could be through waste water seeping through soil into the pipelines or a lack of maintenance of the distribution system.  

Not knowing the cause makes it difficult to find a solution. 

This was the first study to examine the presence of antibiotic resistant genes in drinking water samples from a First Nation Community in Canada. Kumar said his team hopes it sheds light on the issue of poor water quality in First Nation communities.