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Warning, Olympic germs heading here! Why health officials will be on high alert
07:49 GMT, 26 June 2012
The conversation is one being repeated across the country: ‘Feeling hot and everything aches. Think I might have the flu.’
‘A colleague has just called in with similar. Have you seen a doctor’
The difference here is that this interchange is played out over the internet on social networking site Twitter — and the Big Doctor is watching.
The reason for such heavy-duty surveillance is to prevent an outbreak of disease sweeping through the Olympic village – or indeed the nation
For this conversation could be the thing that alerts the Health Protection Agency to the outbreak of an infectious disease during this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics.
In advance of the Games, officials have set up what’s been dubbed the ‘biggest health surveillance system in the world’. This will involve closely tracking our behaviour.
Normally the health authorities rely on doctors and NHS helplines reporting outbreaks such as flu, but for the Olympics, they’ll be tracking information daily from out-of-hours GPs, walk-in centres, emergency departments, and even networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
The reason for such heavy-duty surveillance is to prevent an outbreak of disease sweeping through the Olympic village — or indeed the nation.
The influx of visitors is beginning, as more than 14,000 athletes from 205 Olympic teams and 170 paralympic teams start arriving.
During the Games an extra four million people are expected to visit the capital; on the busiest day, Saturday, August 4, 700,000 spectators will be crisscrossing London to see events at 11 venues.
‘That’s a lot of people, and people are very effective conduits for disease,’ says Dr David Heymann, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
‘Bacteria, viruses and parasites can travel while still in the incubation period — this means before they have started to cause symptoms.
'This can range from 12 to 48 hours for the norovirus, also known as the winter vomiting bug, to several months for tuberculosis.’
Furthermore, those people will have come from all over the world.
Around 17,000 competitors will be staying in the Olympic village, often sharing rooms, and they'll be at highest risk from outbreaks of flu, diarrhoea and vomiting
‘There is a chance that diseases we don’t normally see in the UK will be coming in and circulating more quickly,’ says Dr Brian McCloskey, London director of the Health Protection Agency (HPA).
Prevention is key, say officials, and the HPA has been taking advice from other Olympic host cities as well as organisers of mass gatherings, ranging from the Hajj (the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) to music festivals and sporting events.
What has emerged is the importance of having high-quality and well-tested systems in place to monitor and respond to any outbreaks.
This will enable officials to rapidly identify people with unusual symptoms, or any conditions that seem resistant to medication.
They can then alert healthcare providers and the public to symptoms to look out for and precautions to take.
In the run up to an average flu season, increased reports of ‘flu-like illness’ from the usual channels of GPs and NHS helplines can give a two-week warning that flu is on its way.
With these systems being extended for the Olympics, the legacy of the Games won’t just be sparkling new sporting arenas, but we’ll also have a far more comprehensive and effective health surveillance system for the future.
The HPA has also developed rapid testing procedures to identify harmful bacteria or viruses in the Olympic food or facilities.
Cafes, burger vans and snack stalls surrounding event areas will face spot checks, while the Olympic arenas are already being monitored for Legionnaires’ disease.
This potentially fatal form of pneumonia is caught by inhaling water droplets, and can be spread through contaminated air-conditioning units.
The disease-control plans even include advising those attending the Games to ensure they are up-to-date with routine vaccines and ensuring messages about personal hygiene measures, such as washing hands thoroughly, are visible throughout the Games.
The good news is these events are fairly low risk for the general public, says Dr McCloskey. ‘More worrying are events like the Hajj where people spend several days living, eating and sleeping together so sickness and respiratory diseases spread very quickly.’
Experts believe the athletes are the most likely group to succumb to sickness.
Around 17,000 competitors will be staying in the Olympic village, often sharing rooms, and they’ll be at highest risk from outbreaks of flu, diarrhoea and vomiting.
British athletes have already been advised by the British Olympic
Association not to shake hands with other competitors in case they catch a bug that destroys their chance of winning a gold medal.
The Games’ swimming pools will be tested regularly for contamination, and open water used for events such as long-distance swimming, rowing and sailing will be sampled, too.
Owners of small boats will also be warned not to release effluent into the water.
But Dr McCloskey stresses that the public should focus on enjoying the spectacle of the Games, as our health services are ready and prepared to deal with any eventualities.
‘It’s important for the public to realise the NHS coped well during other emergencies such as the bird flu pandemic, and we are working closely with NHS London and NHS Direct to react quickly to any threat to public health during the Olympic Games and beyond.
‘The Games may be bigger than any event we’ve seen before, but the risk they pose in terms of public health is only slightly increased.’