Rio de Janeiro. Already well known for its vibrant culture and nightlife, this Brazilian city has also become known for sports this month as they play host to the Games of the 31st Olympiad. Many brand new athletic facilities were created specifically for these games, and Brazil poured a projected $18 billion or more into bringing these games to life. Even more funding was supplied by sponsors, like Coca Cola. Unfortunately, not all sports venues could be made ideal.
Guanabara Bay and Copacabana Beach off the coast of Rio are the sites of five aquatic events in this year's games: sailing, rowing, canoe sprinting, the triathlon, and marathon swimming. In addition to hosting these great sporting events, these waterways also play host to many unwelcome guests: multi-drug resistant bacteria and viruses of many varieties.
The Brazilian government has been aware for years that raw sewage has rushed into their waterways from the cities. In their bid to bring the Olympics to Rio, Brazil pledged to put forth $4 billion to deal with their water contamination issues. Unfortunately, due to a "budget crisis" they were only able to invest $170 million before the Games began. The results of this lack of funding may end up having devastating effects on the health of athletes at these games.
A study published by Renata Cristina Picao's group in Brazil in 2015 looked specifically at the bacterial populations of the water from the beaches surrounding Rio de Janeiro. They studied a total of 18 water samples from different regions along the coastline. Of these isolates, only one had bacteria with susceptibility to imipenem, a common drug used to treat bacterial infections in this area. Resistance rates to other popular drugs were also alarmingly high, with 77.8% of the isolates showing bacteria with resistance to cefotaxime, 50% showing resistance to cefepime, 27.8% showing resistance to gentamicin and amikacin, and 5.6% showing resistance to ciprofloxacin. With drug resistance running rampant in the bacteria that call this water home, being on or, even worse, in this water may pose a significant health threat to athletes.
Possibly an even larger threat than the bacteria in these waters are the viruses that can also be found. Hepatitis A virus can be found in human waste, and experts speculate that ~60% of Brazilian adults are exposed to the virus. In waters that contain large amounts of human waste, like the ones the athletes will be exposed to, the risk of infection is significant. The CDC recommends that all travelers to Brazil, not just those who will be exposed to the water, receive the Hepatitis A vaccine. With appropriate use of the vaccine, an outbreak of Hepatitis A can likely be prevented, though some have questioned whether or not the vaccine will protect against the local strains of the virus.
In addition to Hepatitis A virus, water tests have found alarmingly high levels of multiple types of adenovirus, which can cause severe gastrointestinal problems and do not have vaccines. Fernando Spilki, a Brazilian virologist, performed water testing for the Associated Press and found levels of adenovirus from 14 million to 1.7 billion virions per liter of water. To put this in perspective, California officials become concerned about their water quality if the level rises to just 1,000 virions per liter.
Many may wonder why, with the popularity of these beaches among Brazilians, there has not been a major viral outbreak or an outbreak of multi-drug resistant bacteria in the region already. The answer likely lies in the fact that these native-born and raised Brazilians have been exposed to these bacteria and viruses from a very young age, allowing their bodies to develop a successful immune response to the pathogens. However, the same immunity will not exist for the foreign athletes who will be exposed to these waters.
In the year leading up to these games, some athletic groups have already trained and raced on these waters. Many documented athletes experiencing illness. The World Junior Rowing Championships were held in Rio in 2015, and the U.S. team documented 13 rowers who suffered gastrointestinal illness following the event. The Australian sailing team has trained on the waters around Rio for the past several months, and they also have had athletes fall ill with gastrointestinal problems.
Though independent water testing has identified the water as potentially hazardous to health, the International Olympic Committee has maintained that the water is safe enough for the events to be held. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized that the water quality is less-than-ideal, and has issued several statements for travelers warning them of the potential for infection if exposure to contaminated water occurs. Additionally, the WHO has recognized that sites in the Guanabarra Bay, where sailing, rowing, and canoe sprinting take place, do not always meet the standards of safety, based on bacterial testing. As a precaution, they recommend that for all bodies of water "all athletes should cover cuts and grazes with waterproof
plasters prior to exposure, try to avoid swallowing the water, wash/shower as soon as possible after
exposure and, as far as possible, minimize their time in the water and avoid going in the water after
heavy rainfall if possible." In events like the triathlon, where the swim portion is upwards of 20 minutes, and the marathon swim, which can take 2 hours or more to complete, minimizing time in the water is not always a viable option.
In light of the potential health risks, athletes and spectators alike will need to use increased caution regarding the Rio games. Monitoring for illness is going to be critical to prevent severe illnesses from developing. Many have focused on the potential threat of Zika virus at these games, but the threat of the multi-drug resistant bacteria and viruses in the waters should not be forgotten. All can cause significant problems and really ruin the Olympic experience. Perhaps next time the Olympic Committee will be more skeptical of selecting a location with such serious health concerns unless they are willing to chip in some funds to help the country address the situation. Such a gesture would not only have a positive impact on the athletes, but more importantly, it would have a sustained impact on the residents of the host country for years after the conclusion of the Games.
--On a side note, I'm so proud of my former teammate Amanda Elmore and the entire U.S. W8+ for dominating and winning gold at Rio!! Boiler Up!