In all likelihood, there will be no large-scale public health crises during the London 2012 Olympics. But Dr. Brian McCloskey has to prepare, just in case. That’s his job as the London director of the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA), the UK-government-funded yet independent public body charged since 2004 with protecting the health of the country’s population from all threats, including those from infectious disease, chemicals, violence, and anything else that may arise. The HPA also collaborates with the World Health Organization on “emergency preparedness for Mass Gatherings and High Consequence, High Visibility events,” Dr. McCloskey explained at the 22nd European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID), sponsored by the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.
“Mass gatherings” are nothing new for London, which has routinely hosted large music and sporting events against a backdrop of ongoing terrorist threats. However, the Olympics represents one of the largest public health challenges yet, in terms of sheer scale and international media scrutiny, noted Dr. McCloskey, who has been with HPA since its inception and was director of public health with the U.K.’s National Health Service for 14 years prior to that.
The Olympics officially begins July 27 and ends 12 Aug. 12, followed by the Paralympics 29 Aug. 29 to Sept 9. In addition, London will also host the Olympic torch relay, Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee beginning in May, Wimbledon in June, possibly the largest-ever gay pride festival in late June-early July, and the Notting Hill Carnival in August. “In other words, there will be one long party in London from May through September,” he commented.
In all, the Olympics will comprise 26 sports in 34 venues, with 10,500 athletes, 17,000 people living in the Olympic Village, 21,000 media and broadcasters, and approximately 180,000 spectators per day in the Olympic Park. The challenge, he said, is to plan to respond to anything that can happen without disrupting life for Londoners.
Dr. McCloskey and his colleagues have been studying experiences at previous Olympics, as well as published literature on mass gatherings such as the yearly Islamic pilgrimage, or “Hajj,” to Mecca. Indeed, “mass gatherings” is an emerging area of medicine that was explored in depth earlier this year in a series of six articles in The Lancet. There is also a WHO advisory group on mass gatherings, and even a specialty curriculum being developed, he said in an interview.
Judging by previous experience, “The most likely thing to happen is nothing at all. Most Olympic Games go off without any problems, with only minor impact on the public health service and on public health. But, we do need to think about all the things that could happen.”
Mass gatherings have been associated with both food/waterborne and airborne/respiratory infectious diseases. Yet, less than 1% of healthcare visits in Sydney during the 2000 Olympics were for infectious diseases. In the 2006 winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, surveillance for acute gastroenteritis, flulike illness, measles, and other health-related events turned up nothing unusual as compared with non-Olympics time periods.
During the 2012 Olympics, the HPA will deliver a “Situation Report” each morning to Olympics organizers, describing the state of public health in England and highlighting any potential issues. Managing rumors will also be important, he noted.
Laboratory surveillance, clinical case reporting, and syndromic surveillance—based on patient complaints—will all be enhanced during the Games, with the help of primary care providers and hospitals around the U.K. Any triggers will be followed up, with a much lower threshold and greater speed than usual. In fact, most of these surveillance systems have been in place for at least a year now. “So we’re feeling very comfortable,” Dr. McCloskey said.
And these measures will last beyond the Games. “We will have at least two new surveillance systems in the U.K. as a legacy afterwards…What you get is improved public health systems but also better recognition of the importance of public health and better working relationships…Every country I’ve talked to who’s hosted the Games says we can expect that legacy. Provided nothing goes wrong. But of course, it’s not going to go wrong, it’s all in place, so come and enjoy it.”
–Miriam E. Tucker (@MiriamETucker on Twitter)