Rio de Janeiro Troubled By "Superbug" As Summer Olympics Near

The Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Brazil beginning August 5. Some of Rio de Janeiro's iconic stunning beaches are the venues for events such as sailing. But a group of Brazilian scientists has detected a drug-resistant "super bacteria" in Rio's waters less than a month before the city will host the 2016 Olympic Games.

Renata Picao, lead researcher, says the bacteria enter the waters when sewage from city hospitals is channeled into waterways and ends up in the bay. Picao's team searched for super bacteria on five of Rio's beaches between 2013 and 2014 and found that Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) was detected in varying concentrations in the coastal waters of the Olympic host city. This family of germs is particularly difficult to treat because it is highly resistant to antibiotics. The researchers believe there is a strong association between their presence on Rio's beaches and sewage pollution.

Because raw sewage has continued to pollute Rio's waterways between 2014 and now, Picao believes these "super bacteria" are still present at detectable levels. The impact of these bacteria on human health has not yet been studied.

Between August 5 and August 21, 2016, Rio will host more than 10,000 athletes from 200 plus countries. In addition, hundreds of thousands of tourists will flood the city to witness the multi-sport spectacle. Botafogo and Flamengo beaches, venues for Olympic sailing events, were among those flagged for the presence of the super bacteria. Ipanema beach, a popular hotspot for both locals and tourists, also tested positive.

Heiko Kroger, a German Para-Olympic sailor, has been training in Rio's waters:

"The area is nice for sailing", he says, "but the water feels like an alien enemy in my face, forcing me to keep my lips and nose tightly closed."

One of Kroger's teammates suffered a severe skin infection after training in Rio, and the team suspects super bacteria are the culprits.

No infrastructure for proper sanitation

Picao states Rio's sanitation infrastructure is fragile. Super bacteria colonize the intestines and are expelled with feces. Raw hospital sewage is allowed to flow into the municipal sewage without undergoing any treatment. This untreated sewage then finds its way into Guanabara Bay, the city's rivers, and finally its beaches.

In 2009, when making a bid to host the Olympics, the city of Rio promised to improve sanitation and clean up its polluted waterways. To this end, a new sewage treatment plant was commissioned earlier this year and will serve more than 400,000 Rio residents. Edes de Oliveira, director of Cedae, Rio's water utility, states 51% of sewage is now treated before it is released into the city's waterways. In 2009, it was only 11%. 

Despite these concerns, the International Olympic Committee has not recommended changing the venue for the sailing events to a safer, cleaner location. Picao says the risks are not yet known and changing the venue may not be necessary. But, if athletes do get infected, this alert will help make physicians aware that they could be dealing with a drug-resistant "super bacteria."

We need further investigation to understand the risks these bacteria pose to human health, states Picao. Meanwhile, she isn't taking her children to Rio's beaches.