Eco-Challenge Not Over For Racers Battling Deadly Disease

By Neville Judd

ATLANTA, Georgia, September 18, 2000 (ENS) - At least 37 competitors and volunteers who participated in last month's Eco-Challenge Race in Malaysian Borneo have contracted acute fevers and two have tested positive for a potentially deadly disease.

Dozens of others are awaiting the results of blood tests to discover if they have leptospirosis, a bacterial disease that can lead to kidney damage, meningitis and in some cases, death.


There was plenty of potential for Eco-Challenge competitors to contract leptospirosis, which is typically caught through exposure to contaminated water. (Photos courtesy Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000)
Captain of Team Eric Ashley, who expects his test results tomorrow, has been sick since his return from the jungles and rivers of Sabah on the island of Borneo.

"I was out of it for a week when I got back and had many of the symptons mentioned for leptospirosis," Ashley told ENS.

Those symptoms include high fever, severe headache, chills, muscle aches, and vomiting, and may include jaundice, red eyes, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or a rash.

The disease is caused by bacteria of the genus Leptospira, which is most common in temperate or tropical climates. Outbreaks are usually caused by exposure to water contaminated with the urine of infected animals - typically cattle, pigs, horses, dogs and rodents.

Humans become infected through contact with water, food, or soil containing urine from these infected animals. This may happen by swallowing contaminated food or water or through skin contact, especially through the eyes or nose, or broken skin. The disease is not thought to be contagious.

Ashley was contacted by the department of health in Vermont, where he lives, after an advisory issued by the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), warning of a suspected outbreak. Calling by cell phone on the road in Vermont, the hardwood lumber salesman said he is feeling better.


Team did not finish this year's Eco-Challenge.
The CDC is trying to contact all 155 U.S.-based athletes who competed in the Eco-Challenge Sabah 2000 Expedition Race held from August 20 to September 3.

The World Health Organization is contacting national authorities in 20 other countries to reach the remaining 149 racers.

Ashley and others already contacted have been prescribed doxycycline, or other antibiotics such as penicillin. Those with severe symptoms are receiving intravenous antibiotics.

Those exposed to Leptospirosis can take up to four weeks to fall ill. Ashley said two of his team mates - Shane Bowley and Thomas Cook - had also shown symptoms.

"I'm not sure if they realize the disease can take four weeks to take affect so I've tried to contact them. Shane has been under the weather and Tom has a cold. Liz [Lee Sargent] is fine, but I'm waiting to hear back from her and Tom.

The former Vermont State bodybuilding champion was inspired to race after watching televised coverage of the 1995 Eco-Challenge held in Utah. He said neither the threat of disease or the gruelling course deterred him from competing again.

Team were among the 18 teams that did not finish the 320 mile course. Some 76 teams trekked, dived, paddled, cycled and rappelled the arduous course designed by Mark Burnett, creator of this summer's popular TV show Survivor.


The creator of Eco-Challenge and this summer's TV hit Survivor, Mark Burnett.
Burnett said, "As organizers, we are facilitating assistance to all those who have reported symptoms which are unusual to post-race recovery," he said.

"To those of you who are sick, I wish you all a very speedy recovery," said Burnett in a statement. "I urge you all to continue to be extremely cooperative with the researchers who will be calling you. Their research may be able to help your friends make a quicker recovery."

The U.S. Team Salomon/Eco-Internet won the race in just under six days.