Tonight marks the beginning of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. For 17 days, approximately 10,500 delegates from 206 nations will converge on the city to participate in 26 different sports. As the premier stage for the world’s best athletes, it’s no surprise that the estimated number of tourists to the city will be near 480,000. The construction of new sporting venues and improvements to infrastructure are visible signs of what has been happening behind the scenes to prepare for such an influx of people. But what about behind the scenes?
One component surely going on behind the scenes is surveillance in the public health sector. “Mass gatherings, including the Olympics, bring together large concentrations of people from throughout the world…which could increase the chances of infectious diseases spreading in those who are susceptible,” remarked Brian McCloskey, London director of the Health Protection Agency in the months leading up to the London Summer games of 2012. In advance of the games, researchers examine travel patterns from previous years’ Olympics games. Additionally, Olympic host cities are encouraged to familiarize themselves with a 6-part series from The Lancet Infectious Diseases, to understand the impact of mass gatherings from a public health perspective.
Once the games begin, enhanced surveillance is employed to alert officials to indications of emerging infections. Rapid diagnostic microbiology labs are essential to identifying pathogens and decide how to limit any threat to public health. In 2012, U.S. health officials were most concerned about the potential for another measles outbreak like Vancouver had suffered following the conclusion of the winter Olympics there.
This year, Zika has garnered the most attention related to public health concerns surrounding the games. I covered this topic as part of World Health Day back in April of this year, approximately one year after the first case of Zika was confirmed in Brazil. As of just last week, there were 1,650 confirmed Zika infections in the United States, including a report of four individuals said to be the first to contract the disease locally on the US mainland with no prior travel abroad.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides information to travelers at any time of year, as well as specialized information related to public health safety as tourists consider traveling abroad for the Olympics. Regardless, Margaret Chan, director of WHO, is confident that the risk of infection is low, so much so that she will be in attendance at the games. Her tips for those traveling to the games include wearing mosquito repellant and clothing that may prevent mosquito bites. Additionally, she encourages everyone to use safe sex practices, including the use of condoms to prevent sexual transmission of the disease.
I may not be going to the Olympic games, but having attended the Salt Lake City games, I will be watching with anticipation, not just for those feats of athleticism that will be talked about for years to come, but for the news updates that interest the health communicator in me!