The Superbug In Rio’s Olympic Waters

Athletes like Meghan Musnicki and Mike Gennaro are getting ready for the sports bid of their lives as they prepare to fight for spots on the US rowing team that will be sent to Rio to compete in the 2016 Olympic Games. They might want to rethink their eagerness to hit the water, though: Bacteria have just been discovered in and around the waters of Flamengo beach, where someOlympic events will be taking place. The problem gets worse, because these aren’t your garden-variety bugs. They’re antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” that could cause serious, and even fatal, infections in athletes and others, even with treatment. Rio officials have promised to clean up their act, but can they get it together in time?

Testing of the waters has revealed bacteria– like those that cause the “stomach flu,” characterized by vomiting, diarrhea, and gastrointestinal discomfort, as well as some that can cause respiratory infections — that produce the KPC enzyme. The enzyme, found in a number of bacterial organisms, confers antibiotic resistance and makes it much harder to treat patients effectively, as first-line antibiotics often fail, along with backup treatments that are more aggressive. While no infections have been linked to the bacteria yet, officials haven’t ruled out the possibility that people in Rio could start to show signs of infection, and athletes along with coaches are worried.

The issue runs more deeply than contamination at just one site. Samples taken from the Carioca River, which runs through the city, have revealed more of the bacteria, suggesting that the problemmay be moving in at multiple points in and around Rio. The root cause is likely to be untreated sewage. In a city where 12 million people live in close quarters and nearly 70% of the sewage is untreated, the risks of bacterial contamination in waterways are very high — and thanks to the high degree of mixing in those waters, the development of antibiotic resistance is almost inevitable. As with other bacteria, people can become carriers without exhibiting symptoms, or may unknowingly bring the bacteria back before they get sick, creating a feedback loop where people become sick, the bacteria enters the water, people get sick again, and the problem persists.

As Rio was preparing for the games, it pledged to reduce the amount of raw sewage and garbage entering waterways for precisely this reason. These bacteria are found not just in sewage but also on hospital waste, which is just one component of the garbage dumped into the city’s waters. However, little progress has been made on cleanup, an issue that came to the fore during the World Cup, when many teams set up well outside the city, ostensibly for privacy to focus on training, but possibly due to safety considerations. Meanwhile, Rio has attracted attention for its “social cleansing” of impoverished neighborhoods. The city’s inability to deal with basic civil sanitation issues is a concern with the whole world, and thousands of athletes, planning to descend upon Rio for a major sporting event in 2016 — given the slow progress made so far, it seems unlikely that the city will be able to effect a cleanup program in time.

Lack of progress is also a concern in the social justice sense, as it reflects bad living conditions for the city’s most poor and vulnerable. As Rio’s residents are pushed out to make way for elite visitors, it’s time to start asking hard questions about the standards we want to set for Olympic host cities. With the costs of hosting rising ever higher and a legitimate desire to include nations all around the world instead of simply a series of Western countries, human rights need to become an important consideration when evaluating host bids. In a city where residents cannot get access to clean water and basic sanitation, something is clearly going wrong.

Photo credit: IRRI Photos


donnaa d.
donnaa D3 years ago


Kathryn M.
Kathryn M3 years ago

Oh, dear. More Superbug news.

I'm sorry to see the criticism of Rio as an Olympic host city, though. I've been there and love it.

Ana M3 years ago

Thanks for sharing.

Ron B.
Ron B3 years ago

Thanks to us it looks like it's time to hold a Superbug Olympics instead and just leave humans out of it.

delilah st louis
delilah s3 years ago

Not a good situation at all !

Debbi W.
Debbi -3 years ago

The Olympic committee should be much more diligent when they check out possible venues. Rio should improved the conditions there for their own people before spending money on preparing for the Olympics. Very sad situation.

Will all of the Olympic contenders be made aware of this?

Carole R.
Carole R3 years ago

Awful situation, I'd say.

Bonnie Bowen
Bonnie B3 years ago

Rio diculous!

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

This isn't surprising.

Everyone knows about the water in Mexico right?

Rio's south of Mexico.

Everyone knows when things "go south" they get worse, right.

I rest my case.

Roslyn McBride
Roslyn M3 years ago

I imagine whether the water at Rio gets cleaned up in time or not, it won't stop the water athletes from competing.