As If Zika Wasn’t Enough … “Superbugs” Find a Home at Rio’s Olympic Sites

Sewage clings to boats in Guanabara Bay

Scientists have found drug-resistant “superbugs” off beaches in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, that will host Olympic swimming events, according to a Reuters report. Investigators also discovered resistant bacteria in a lagoon where rowing and canoe athletes will compete when the Games start on August 5.

Two unpublished academic studies seen by Reuters involved Rio’s most popular tourist spots and heighten concerns that the city’s sewage-infested waterways are unsafe.

Results from the first of the two new studies were announced in September 2015 at the Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy in San Diego, California. The data showed the presence of dangerous microbes at five of Rio’s showcase beaches, including the ocean-front Copacabana, where open-water and triathlon swimming will take place.

Superbugs can cause difficult-to-treat urinary, gastrointestinal, pulmonary, and bloodstream infections, along with meningitis. Resistant bacteria contribute to death in up to one-half of infected patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The second study, backed by the Brazilian government, will be published next month by the American Society for Microbiology. That study found the genes of superbugs in the Rodrigo de Freitas lagoon in the heart of Rio and in a river that empties into Guanabara Bay.

Waste from countless hospitals, in addition to hundreds of thousands of households, pours into storm drains, rivers, and streams crisscrossing Rio de Janeiro, allowing super bacteria to spread in recent years. Cleaning the city’s waterways was a high-profile promise in the official 2009 bid document that Rio used to win the right to host South America’s first Olympics. That goal has instead been an embarrassing failure, with athletes lamenting the stench of sewage and complaining about debris that bangs into and clings to boats in Guanabara Bay.

Flamengo beach, where spectators will gather to watch Olympic sailors vie for medals, had superbugs in 90% of water samples. Ten percent of Copacabana’s samples had the microbes. Ipanema and Leblon beaches, the most popular with tourists, had samples that tested positive for superbugs 50% and 60% of the time, respectively.

In related news, Brazil’s Health Minister Ricardo Barros recently announced that there is no scientific basis for postponing the Olympic Games because of the Zika virus, explaining that lower temperatures and fewer mosquitoes will reduce the chance of infection in August, when the games will be held.

Source: Reuters; June 13, 2016; and Reuters; June 7, 2016.