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'Superbug' Threatening Swimming and Diving Events

10 Aug, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

It doesn’t have the scariness (nor certainly the risk of fatality) of the brain-eating amoeba, but an intestinal illness that is infecting users in swimming pools and water parks, and seems to be resistant to normal chlorination, may be this summer’s big headache for sports event planners.

The Centers for Disease control have noted that Cryptosporidium is a microscopic parasite that causes an illness known as cryptosporidiosis. Both the parasite and the disease are known by the slang name of ‘Crypto.’ Unfortunately, says the CDC, the parasite is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive outside the body for long periods of time and makes it very resistant to chlorine disinfection.

Crypto generally causes diarrhea, and other possible symptoms include cramps, an upset stomach, vomiting and a low-grade fever. In some cases, though, it is entirely asymptomatic, which occasionally makes identifying and isolating infected individuals impossible. Confusing the issue still further is the fact that Crypto presents symptoms that could be identified with an array of viruses and other problems.

While the parasite can be spread in several different ways, water (both drinking water and recreational water, such as that found in pools, water parks and hot tubs) is the most common vector; in fact, Cryptosporidium is a leading cause of water-borne disease among humans in the United States. It is spread in pools because infected individuals get into the water and their residual fecal bacteria will be passed along.  The CDC has detailed information on this and other means of transmission.

The problem is compounded by the fact that normal water chemistry tests for pools and water parks are not capable of alerting officials to the presence of Crypto; in fact, it’s something that requires a lab test to diagnose. Water tests for swimming pools and water parks in many areas often cover only basic information such as chlorine and pH levels.

Right now, this may be one of the biggest headaches (or stomachaches, as it were) facing planners of swimming and diving events. While competitive athletes are dialed into health issues, the water they use, even at the highest level of competition, can be a question mark. Most pools, particularly throughout the summer months, host recreational swimmers during non-competition times. And in an Olympic year, when kids will watch national heroes like Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, and then take to pools and swim clinics in an attempt to imitate them, that user population is going to spike, increasing the chances that an infection can hit the water.

So what can sports planners do? Being proactive is the best start. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides a state-by-state list of testing labs so that planners can investigate water testing. Some water tests require analysis that may take several weeks, so this is a process that should be investigated sooner rather than later. In addition, planners should keep open the lines of communication to facility managers to ask about precautions that can be taken in order to keep down the risk of problems.

Officials are noting that while normal chlorination and filtration practices are not sufficient to disable the parasite, closing facilities in order to ‘shock’ the water using a process known as super-chlorination or hyper-chlorination (exactly what it sounds like: temporarily boosting the chlorine content of the water far above levels that would normally be used) can help lower the risk. In outdoor facilities, the sun can help lower chlorine levels following such an event, allowing the pool to be open for use once chemistry has normalized. Planners should find out whether water is shocked, and if so, when pools expect to re-open.

While Crypto isn’t a new phenomenon by any means (news of a massive outbreak in Milwaukee in the 1990s was carried in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine), this summer has seen an uptick in the number of cases. Arizona saw 19 cases in Maricopa County alone in July, and in North Carolina, Wake County Public Health Division has confirmed 29 cases of Crypto.

A section in WebMD notes that while there are measures that can be taken to protect against Crypto, and medications that can address the symptoms, there is currently no drug that cures it and no vaccine. In most cases, the symptoms will pass on their own; however, should infected individuals have other health conditions that put them at increased risk as a result of infections, medical intervention may be necessary.

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