Parasite in Drinking Water Sickens Biathletes on Eve of World Cup Openers

Chelsea LittleDecember 1, 2010
Tim Burke (USA) is among the biathletes infected with the parasite cryptosporidium.

This year’s biathlon World Cup opener in Ostersund has an unexpected challenge: not only do racers have to vanquish their competitors, they also have to beat the parasites that are making happy homes inside their gastrointestinal tracts.

According to The Local, a Swedish news site, 5,000 people in Ostersund are confirmed to have been infected with the parasite cryptosporidium, and it is feared that up to 9,000 could be affected. Officials are still searching for the source of the contamination in the town’s drinking water, and have told all residents to boil their water for the next several weeks. In the meantime, an investigation is being launched as to whether the contamination could have been a result of criminal negligence.

Among the victims are all of the pre-qualified U.S. athletes – Tim Burke, Jeremy Teela, Leif Nordgren, and Sara Studebaker – and all but two of the Swedish women. Burke indicated that the French and Austrian teams had also been sick, and perhaps others.

“There is not much that can be done once you get the parasite except wait it out,” Burke told FasterSkier. “The length of the illness and the symptoms are very individual. I was only really sick for less than 48 hours, while I have heard some others athletes were sick more than a week.”

According to the Center for Disease Control, cryptosporidium, or “crypto,” is one of the most common causes of waterborne disease in the United States, and throughout the world. Symptoms include stomach cramps, dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fever, and diarrhea, and the infection can be very contagious.

Because symptoms don’t appear for two to ten days after infection, there isn’t much that can be done at the beginning of an outbreak. By the time athletes heard of the danger, they were already sick.

“We found out about the parasites in the water right around the time that we all started to get sick,” Burke told FasterSkier.

Studebaker said she had to take two days off to combat the infection.

“I started feeling ill Saturday afternoon,” she said. “My symptoms were throwing up and upset stomach/stomach cramping, but some people have had diarrhea as well. It got worse on Sunday, and I was still feeling pretty sick and weak on Monday. I took Sunday and Monday off from training completely and felt well enough to ski a little on Tuesday, but was pretty tired. Just skiing around took a lot of energy, and I was not feeling that great at the end of the ski.”

Hometown favorite Helena Ekholm was one of the Swedes who was hit by the parasites.

“I was sick last weekend,” she told UPI News. “I was fatigued, had a fever, diarrhea and a stomach ache.”

Nonetheless, she finished third in the first race of the World Cup season on Wednesday: biathletes one, parasites zero.

Chelsea Little

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