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Rio's virus-infested waters dangerous to Olympic athletes' health

With just 321 days to the Rio Olympics, organisers have little time to clean up the virus-infested venues in Rio de Janeiro.

othersports Updated: Sep 20, 2015 13:07 IST

Rivulets of waste crisscross the labyrinth of alleyways that serve as 5-year-old Kaike de Oliveira Benjamin's playground, forming dark, fetid puddles and gurgling streams of refuse and trash. It's little better inside the tiny, one-room apartment he shares with his mother, two little brothers and infestations of roaches and rats. When it rains, the basement apartment floods ankle-deep with a mixture of rainwater and sewage, and drinking water often comes out of the tap looking and smelling contaminated.

Rio de Janeiro's lack of basic sanitation is in the headlines because Olympic athletes will compete in polluted waters during next year's games, but it's hardly news in areas like the Rocinha slum, where contact with untreated waste is an everyday reality for the Benjamins and tens of thousands of other families. The consequences are not fleeting. They reverberate for decades, dooming many children exposed to this filth to lives stunted by illness.

'Medieval System'

One public health expert calls the sewage system in Rio largely 'medieval',comparable with London or Paris in the 14th or 15th century.

And it's not just Rio. Fewer than half of households nationwide are hooked up to sewage mains, meaning that much of the waste generated by about 100 million people runs through open-air ditches that bisect neighbourhoods like Kaike's across this continent-sized nation, befouling streams and rivers that in turn contaminate lakes and lagoons, beaches and bays.

From Kaike's slum -- a sprawling hillside warren of concrete and brittle brick dwellings -- waste flows directly from white plastic pipes sticking out of shacks and washes downstream, partially draining into the basin that ends up in the Olympic lagoon.

High level of viruses

An independent study commissioned by The Associated Press revealed alarmingly high levels of viruses and, sometimes, bacteria from human sewage in all the city's Olympic waterways. A risk assessment based on the AP data found athletes who ingest three teaspoons of water have a 99 percent chance of being infected by a virus, raising alarm among some elite sailors, rowers, canoers, marathon swimmers and triathletes.

For residents of Rocinha and other Rio slums, this is not just a one-time event. They come into contact with such filthy water day after day, week after week, year after year.

Public health experts say children exposed to sewage fall ill more often, are less likely to attend school regularly and fully develop intellectually, and ultimately end up getting significantly lower-paying jobs than people from similar socio-economic backgrounds who grew up with basic sanitation.

Already, Kaike's 18-month-old brother, Rafael, regularly suffers from stomach problems, and last year Kaike was hospitalised for two weeks with acute vomiting and explosive, bloody diarrhoea that doctors attributed to a water-borne bacteria or virus.

The boys' mother, Marcele de Oliveira Franca, can't afford to move and so can't protect her children.

"There's no way to avoid it,"said Franca, a 21-year-old single mother who cobbles together odd jobs as a maid to make the $86 monthly rent. "Sometimes I think I should get them out of here, but there's no way."

Several general practitioners who work in the public health clinics in Rocinha and other Rio slums estimated that up to 40 percent of all the cases they treat are caused by exposure to sewage. Among their patients, gastroenteritis, hepatitis A and fungal skin infections are the most common.

Little time to clean up

A radical cleanup of the city's blighted waterways was meant to be one of the main legacies of the Olympics, used as a key selling point in the city's official bid document. But with less than a year before the games begin and little improvement, authorities have dialed down expectations. Rio governor Luiz Fernando Pezao recently pushed back the deadline for cleaning Guanabara Bay, where the Olympic sailing competitions are to be staged, from 2016 to 2035.

Brazil is the world's seventh-largest economy, but ranked 84th for access to water and sanitation in last year's Yale Environmental Performance Index of 178 countries, trailing such nations such as Turkmenistan, Moldova, Albania and Syria. Rapid urban growth in recent decades, poor planning, political infighting and economic instability are largely to blame, experts say.