Contracting Diseases In The Open Water

Contracting Diseases In The Open Water

Water-related disease information courtesy of Center for Disease Control, Atlanta, Georgia.

Lynne Cox and the New York Times called for the movement of the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim from Copacabana Beach at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games due to water that was tested to be 1.7 million times as contaminated as a beach in California.

[The Olympic 10K Marathon Swim] must be moved to safe, clean waters — and if [an acceptable venue] can’t be found in Brazil, they must be transferred to another country.”

Her call comes months after similar calls by International Olympic Committee and FINA Bureau members Julio Maglione and Vladimir Salnikov. Salnikov, the two-time Olympic 1500m champion and influential head of the Russian Swimming Federation, said “These problems have to be solved on time and that earlier recommendations from FINA obviously haven’t been listened to.”

It appears that even FINA and the IOC have no authority in this matter and are legally incapable of moving the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim to either another location or, as Cox has recommended, to another country.

Swimming World Magazine has reported everything from drug-resistant super bacteria in the oceans off Rio de Janeiro to dangerous pathogens and highly contaminated raw sewage draining into Copacabana Beach. Readers have reported seeing people skimming scum off the surface of the Atlantic Ocean in the mornings on Rio de Janeiro.

Oft-quoted virologist Kristina Mena summarizes their concerns with her research. “Those virus levels are widespread. The pollution is so high that exposure is imminent and the chance of infection very likely.” The prediction of 99% likely means that it is likely that 49 of the 50 Olympic 10K Marathon Swim finalists may be infected if they swallow any water or any water somehow enters their system.

Given this situation, we looked into the instances of open water swimmers picking up diseases in the water.

American marathon swimmer Michael Tyson describes the well-known case of Olympian Kalyn Robinson (née Keller) who contracted Crohn’s Disease after swimming in Copacabana Beach at the 2007 Pan American Games [read Would You Swim in Filthy Water? here].

There are undoubtedly many other open water swimmers who have contracted myriad diseases due to swimming in contaminated open bodies of water. The Daily News of Open Water Swimming would like to begin compiling a list of these diseases and the conditions and locations where the diseases were picked up.

If you picked up a disease due to swimming in an open body of water and would like to publicly share your experiences with the open water swimming community, contact with your story.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is the leading national public health institute in the United States. The CDC is a federal agency under the Department of Health and Human Services and located in Atlanta, Georgia. According to the CDC, the top causes of water-related diseases are listed below.

These diseases are caused by germs spread by swallowing, breathing in mists, or having contact with contaminated water in lakes, rivers, or oceans. The infections include gastrointestinal, skin, ear, respiratory, eye, neurologic, and wound infections with diarrhea being the most common.

Before competing in the 1984 Manhattan Island Marathon Swim, I was worried about infections and the water,” recalled Steven Munatones. “So as a preventive measure, I took gamma globulin, tetanus, typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations well before the race just in case after consultation with Doctors Without Borders and others who have had experiences with epidemics and massive natural disasters. I know others have taken Rifaximin as a precautionary measure.

In contrast to Paul Asmuth and others who participated in the same race and got sick, I was fine. I do not know if I simply did not contract anything, swallow any water, or the vaccinations actually helped, but right after the swim, I ate a lot and flew home that evening without feeling sick

Top Causes of Water-related Diseases

Shigella: Shigellosis is an infectious disease caused by a group of bacteria called Shigella that causes diarrhea, fever, and stomach cramps starting 1-2 days after exposure to the bacteria. Shigellosis usually resolves in 5 to 7 days. Some people who are infected may have no symptoms at all, but may still pass the Shigella bacteria to others.

Norovirus: a very contagious virus that swimmers can get from an infected person, contaminated food or water, or by touching contaminated surfaces. The virus causes inflammation of the stomach or intestines or both (acute gastroenteritis), leading to stomach pain, nausea, and diarrhea and to vomit. Norovirus illness can be serious, especially for young children and older adults. In the United States each year it causes 19-21 million illnesses and contributes to 56,000-71,000 hospitalizations and 570-800 deaths.

E. coli (Escherichia coli): this bacteria normally lives in the intestines of people and animals. Most E. coli are harmless and are an important part of a healthy human intestinal tract. However, some E. coli are pathogenic and can cause illness, either diarrhea or illness outside of the intestinal tract. The types of E. coli that can cause diarrhea can be transmitted through contaminated water or food, or through contact with animals or persons. Pathogenic E. coli strains are categorized into six pathotypes that are associated with diarrhea and collectively are referred to as diarrheagenic E. coli.

Cryptosporidium: a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are commonly known as Crypto. While this parasite can be spread in several different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common way to spread the parasite. Cryptosporidium is a leading cause of waterborne disease among humans in the United States.

Cercarial Dermatitis (Swimmer’s Itch): appears as a skin rash caused by an allergic reaction to certain parasites that infect some birds and mammals. These microscopic parasites are released from infected snails into fresh and salt water. While the parasite’s preferred host is the specific bird or mammal, if the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin causing an allergic reaction and rash. Swimmer’s itch is found throughout the world and is more frequent during summer months. Most cases of swimmer’s itch do not require medical attention.

Giardia: a microscopic parasite that causes the diarrheal illness known as giardiasis. Giardia (also known as Giardia intestinalis, Giardia lamblia, or Giardia duodenalis) is found on surfaces or in soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected humans or animals. While the parasite can be spread in different ways, water (drinking water and recreational water) is the most common mode of transmission.

Leptospira: a bacterial disease that affects humans and animals that can cause a wide range of symptoms, some of which may be mistaken for other diseases. Some infected persons, however, may have no symptoms at all. Without treatment, Leptospirosis can lead to kidney damage, meningitis (inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord), liver failure, respiratory distress, and even death.

Algal bloom (freshwater and marine blooms): algal bloom is a rapid increase in the population of algae when water temperatures are warm and when nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are present in the water. Blooms can be harmful when they are so thick that they block sunlight that other organisms need to live. When bloom organisms die and decompose, they deplete the oxygen in the water and starve fish and plants, causing fish kills and damaging local ecology. Some algae produce toxins and release them into the water. During a bloom, the amount of toxin present in the water can poison people, wild animals, and pets that go near the water, consume the water, or swim in the water. Cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and other algal blooms produce toxins that may be harmful to human and animal health.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones