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Disease sneaked up on 6 in race

At least a half-dozen athletes who raced through Hillsborough woods and swamps got a potentially fatal illness.

Published December 14, 2005

TAMPA - Elite athletes came here from across the country last month to compete in a grueling 24-hour race through rivers and swamps, but at least six of them went home with a potentially fatal disease rarely contracted in the United States.

At least six people, and possibly several more, got leptospirosis after taking part in the U.S. Adventure Racing Association National Championships, health officials said.

All of the athletes are recovering and doing "fine," said Troy Farrar, president of the racing association. But at least one was sick enough to be hospitalized.

"It was a shocker for us," Farrar said. "I didn't know it happened in the U.S."

Leptospirosis is caused by Leptospira bacteria. People get infected through exposure to water, soil or food contaminated by the urine of infected animals. The disease can be treated with antibiotics.

But in its early stages, the fevers and muscle aches can be mistaken for symptoms of the flu or other illnesses. Left untreated, the disease can cause kidney damage, liver failure, meningitis or death.

County and state health officials are working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to contact all 201 race participants, said David Atrubin, epidemiologist with the Hillsborough County Health Department.

Competitors in the adventure race traveled 100 miles through Hillsborough County woods, rivers and swamps. They canoed the Hillsborough River and ran along the Old Fort King Trail. They rode mountain bikes and navigated through Flatwoods and Sargeant Parks before finishing, a full day after they began, at Trout Creek.

Along the way, saw palmettos cut the racers' legs as they ran by. Racers with open cuts swam through rivers and slogged through swamps. Most likely, they didn't stop to care for their cuts, race officials say.

"These participants were racing for 24 hours, under extreme conditions," Atrubin said. "They had exposures to this organism that most people would not have."

Some of those swamps were so remote that the racers might have been the first people to cross them, Atrubin said.

"It's something confined to this group," he said. "We don't see a threat to the public at large."

The extreme conditions are part of what draws people to the race, Farrar said.

And the remote locations may be exhausting, but they're also what the athletes are seeking.

"Most of us are from the corporate world," he said. "It's nice to get away from that ... and get out in the woods. "

About 100 to 200 cases of leptospirosis are diagnosed each year in the United States, with about half occurring in Hawaii.

But there have been other outbreaks linked to athletic events. In 2000, about 80 athletes contracted the disease while hiking through jungles and swimming in remote rivers during an "Eco-Challenge" race in Borneo. Nobody died, but 29 people were hospitalized.

In 1998, 110 athletes became sick after swimming in an Illinois lake during a triathlon, the largest outbreak ever recorded in the continental United States.


CAUSED BY: Leptospira bacteria.

HOW PEOPLE GET IT: Most often, contact with water contaminated by urine of infected animals. Can also be spread through contaminated food or soil. It's not known to spread from person to person.

WHERE IT COMES FROM: The disease infects many wild animals, as well as cattle, horses, dogs and rodents. It's more common in warmer climates.

SYMPTOMS: Some people don't become sick. Others get headaches, fever, muscle aches, vomiting, jaundice and sometimes a rash. Without treatment, people can experience kidney damage, liver failure, meningitis or breathing problems, and they may die.

TREATMENT: Antibiotics

Source: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

[Last modified December 14, 2005, 00:13:09]

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