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London Olympics: A Biological Ground Zero?

The 2012 Olympics in London are at risk of becoming the next pandemic ground zero according to research conducted by Maplecroft.

The bad news is that London is only part of the story.
Singapore, North and South Korea, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain make the extreme risk of pandemic list, too. None of them are hosting an Olympics, yet are on the same list with the same extreme risk ranking. Confusing? No so much.

Many of the countries noted by Maplesoft are at risk of flu spread as a result of environmental and living conditions. South East Asia is noted in the report as being "a particular risk of emerging strains of influenza" and China is noted as a particular concern. This should not be a surprise. We've been following the development of widely publicized diseases like Avian Flu from these areas for several years. What's different is our level of awareness today. We recognize that global events that bring so many people together from diverse locations brings with it increased disease spread potential.

What makes the 2012 Olympics in London different?
Nothing. In fact, the risk of disease transmission is not unique to  the London Olympic Games in any way. We would be having this same conversation if the Games were being held in Lake Placid, NY or Beijing, China. Mass gatherings have the potential to spread disease, influenza or otherwise. We discuss influenza most often because of the attention drawn to influenza A - H1N1/Swine Flu and H5N1/Highly Pathological Avian Influenza. Although they top the list of notable flu viruses, it's important to remember there are many other diseases of concern. These diseases hold threat potential regardless of the location of the event. The fact is simply highlighted because of the diverse population and environments the athletes and spectators will be coming from. Immune system status, comorbid conditions, and overall state of health of attendees will also be factors in the spread of disease. People will bring diseases as diverse as the culture and health environment they come from...and they'll take other diseases home with them, too. We should also consider the fact that the Olympic Games will be a high-profile event that may be an attractive target for a variety of threats including the biological bomber. Read more: YOU, the biological bomber

What may be different today is our awareness and sensitivity to the biological threat. 
Naturally occurring or intentionally released, a biological agent can be an extraordinarily deadly situation. Perhaps worse than a nuclear detonation, without the big bang, if you will. The good news is that, when compared to other threats, the biological event may be able to be contained and person-to-person transmission limited by simply washing your hands and wearing a mask. The non-pharmacological interventions go a long way to slow the spread of disease and support vaccination efforts. Read more on non-pharmacological interventions.

Technology is a new ally in disease tracking. As described in this video clip from Reuters, public health officials from all over the world are working to improve disease tracking before, during, and after the London Games.

How will the media respond to athletes and attendees at the London Games wearing masks?
This would not be the first time the issue has come up. The United States Cylcling team came under scrutiny for wearing face masks during the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Pollution and air quality prompted the athletes to don the masks and subsequently sparked political issues between China and the U.S. Masks for pollution is one issue. Donning masks to prevent the spread of disease is quite another. Consider the global impact if we were to hear of a "flu-like" illness spreading through London and, at the same time, see athletes wearing N95 masks. It wouldn't take long for the speculation of an outbreak to be spun into the next pandemic.

Preparedness, of course.
There is another side to the threat...preparedness. The widely cited Maplecroft report clearly describes the 10 nations most at risk for pandemic influenza. What is less often noted is that this same report ranks an areas ability to contain a disease. This same research concluded that the U.K. is one of the countries most likely to be able to contain an outbreak:
"...the UK’s strong governance, highly developed infrastructure, well educated population and advanced health system also places it among the 10 countries with the highest capacity to contain a potentially lethal outbreak of a strain of flu." - quoted from
What's less clear is the preparedness in other countries. Attendees and athletes will return home with whatever (if anything at all) they've been exposed to. While strong infrastructure adds to resiliency, the lack of that infrastructure will add to disease complication and management. Read more on flu and biological preparedness.

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