Infectious disease epidemiologists are ramping up outbreak surveillance as tens of thousands of people from throughout the world come to London for the Olympic Games. Some 660,000 international visitors and 70,000 athletes and staff will descend on London for the Games, held July 27-August 12.
Knowing they will be bringing various and sundry bugs with them, Britain’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), the Sweden-based European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and researchers in Toronto are tracking in real-time communicable diseases that have the potential to mar the Games.
“The most important thing is knowing what is happening on the ground as soon as possible, so if anything unusual does happen we can respond quickly,” Brian McCloskey, the Olympic lead for the HPA, told the press.
Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and scientist at the University of Toronto, said that mass gatherings such as the Olympics are unique from a public health standpoint because they play host to “a little global community in a very defined space.”
For the Olympics, the HPA is monitoring the public health situation in Britain while the European CDC is looking outward at diseases emerging worldwide.
Khan and his team, using a system he created called Bio.Diaspora, are able to analyse the risk posed to London from an outbreak elsewhere in the world by looking at air passenger traffic into the city from the location of concern.
“The biggest concern is a mass gathering intersecting in time with a big international outbreak,” Khan said.
It happened in 2009, when the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca – the largest annual mass gathering in the world which every year attracts around 2 million Muslims from outside Saudi Arabia – coincided with the emergence of the deadly H1N1 flu pandemic. The quick response by Saudi health authorities lessened the flu’s impact, and has provided a blueprint for the London Olympics.