'Super Bacteria' Raises Health Concerns In Rio

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Financial troubles, rising crime rates, and the Zika virus begin the list of obstacles that the city of Rio de Janeiro is facing just before hosting the 2016 Olympic Games. Now, with exactly one month until opening ceremonies on Aug. 5, the list lengthens to include the discovery of "super bacteria" in the city's coastal waters. 

The discovery of the bacterium was announced during the week of July 4 by Brazilian scientists led by head researcher Renata Picao. In an interview with CNN, Picao suggested that the super bacteria may have been caused by untreated sewage from local hospitals running into the city’s natural waters.

Leblon and Ipanema beaches both tested positive for the super bacteria. The two beaches are very popular destinations for tourists and locals. The third beach that tested positive was Guanabara Bay, the location of the 2016 Olympic sailing events.

As if the name were not enough to scare athletes and tourists from entering the Brazilian waters, the truly terrifying aspect of super bacteria is the fact that the virus may be multi-resistant. However, the International Olympic Committee has reportedly not mandated a change in venue for this year’s Olympic sailing events because the effects are not certain yet, Picao said.

Because the majority of sewage is untreated in Brazil, water pollution has been a concern for Olympic officials since serious discussions about the location of the 2016 Games began. In Brazil's 2009 Olympic bid, officials promised to reduce the levels of pollution in the water by 80 percent, but tests conducted by the Associated Press in recent years reportedly prove that pollution levels remain dangerously high.

The AP tests from the summer of 2015 found that the waters off of the coast of Rio contained disease-causing viruses at hazardous levels. In fact, some of these levels were so high that they registered 1.7 million times greater than the standard level of danger on a typical beach in Southern California. Given this statistic, the number of Olympic athletes training in Brazilian waters who have fallen ill is not surprising. 

In 2015, Mel Stewart, an American swimmer who won two gold medals and one bronze at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, told the AP that he would discourage his daughter from competing in open water swimming events in Rio.

"A gold medal is not worth jeopardizing your health," he said. With respect to safety, he added, "It doesn’t appear at this point that the athletes are being thought of first."

In an ESPN Outside of the Lines report, IOC executive director Christophe Dubi told senior writer Tom Farrey that recent economic troubles in Rio excuse the unmet goal of 80 percent improvement. 

The discovery of super bacteria brings the concerns of Stewart and many others to the forefront once again.

Nonetheless, in his Outside of the Lines interview, Dubi went on to say: “If you take a step back in a few months, you will see changes in the city that are meaningful. The Games will change the life of citizens.”

Sources: CNN, AP, AP via ESPN, ESPN / Photo Credit: Ron Kroetz/Flickr

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