Eco-Challenge racers exposed to fatal illness
Four local athletes who paddled rivers and climbed mountains in Borneo as part of an adventure race last summer likely contracted a sometimes-fatal bacterial illness, the government said Thursday.
It is not known, however, if Amy Capron, Ben Niiler, Brian Hightower and Chris Morrow, the members of Team Boogie Aspen, were among the scores who actually contracted leptospirosis, an illness often transmitted by rat urine that lurks in contaminated water and soil.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it has confirmed 68 cases of leptospirosis among participants in the race. None of the cases was fatal.
The CDC said health officials are trying to reach 146 other racers and expect roughly the same extremely high rate of infection. More than 150 Americans participated in the race.
The racers were infected during the Eco-Challenge Sabah, a grueling two-week contest in which four-person teams from more than 20 countries slogged through heavily flooded rivers and hiked mountains in the jungles of Malaysian Borneo.
Attempts last night to contact the Aspen team were unsuccessful.
Symptoms of the disease, including chills, diarrhea, headaches and eye infections, were reported by 44 percent of the 158 race participants who have been contacted. Most of the 68 were sick for about a week in September.
Most of the victims probably became infected from swimming in the Segama River, the CDC said.
Leptospirosis is often transmitted by the urine of infected rats and mice and can cause fatal kidney and liver damage. It is not believed to be passed person-to-person. About 5 percent of cases end in death.
Forty-one other racers reported they became ill after the race, but it is unclear what made them sick, said Dr. James Sejvar, a CDC epidemiologist.
Robyn Benincasa, a San Diego firefighter who contracted the disease, said her symptoms still linger – fever, fatigue and upper-respiratory problems that keep her from training for more adventure races.
“I’m just really, really slowly getting over the whole thing,” she said. “The water was just really dingy, murky and muddy, and at that point we had had so many leech bites and open wounds. So it’s not really surprising.”
Officials at Eco-Challenge did not immediately return calls to its Beverly Hills, Calif., headquarters seeking comment. Eco-Challenge has held similar races in the United States, Argentina, Morocco, Australia and Canada and plans an event in New Zealand in October.
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