London Gets the Gold Medal in Hygiene

08/12/2012 12:04 EDT | Updated 10/11/2012 05:12 EDT
The olympic rings are seen in the Weymouth and Portland venue at the London 2012 Summer Olympics, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. The men's 470 medals race was postponed Thursday due to lack of wind on the nicest day of the Olympic sailing regatta. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

As the London Games come to a close, there will be an infinite number of retrospectives looking back at the remarkable and nefarious moments that will stand the test of time and offer lessons for the future.

The Opening Ceremonies provided a blueprint to future events on how to merge entertainment with reality in the digital 21st century. The entertaining antics of Usain Bolt epitomized the fact that having fun is indeed a crucial part of athletic achievement. And, much to the chagrin of every Canadian, the women's soccer semi-final proved that the six-second rule is indeed enforceable.

Far away from the headlines, however, is an important lesson that can bring solace to almost every germaphobe. Unlike any other Olympics before, these Games have shown that preventing infection is not only possible, but also relatively easily accomplished.

Days before the end of the Games, the daily health report put out by the U.K. Health Protection Agency stated that the level of observed potential infections was low and that there was no risk to the Games.

The advanced epidemiological measures taken, such as improved testing for gastrointestinal and respiratory illnesses and increased resilience of reporting and data analysis will surely be lauded and shared at public health conferences and meetings to come. But these tactics were for the most part unneeded as another more traditional public health measure appeared to have outperformed its expected level of achievement and put a stop to infection spread altogether.

That measure, surprisingly, was word of mouth.

I tweeted with individuals on site at Olympic Park as well as others who have seen the atmosphere in London and they all said that the message of hygiene was everywhere. Toilets and water were plentiful and lineups were rare. Moreover, the attitude of the people was positive towards hygiene such that no one felt overly pressured to prevent infection spread.

This was all part of the plan according to Brian McCloskey, the national lead health director for the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Health Protection Agency. We talked last week about the concept of hygiene and social behaviour at the Games and his rather unique perspective on how to keep people safe.

According to McCloskey, the goal of the Games was to incorporate hygiene as a part of the overall experience. Information was widely available to the public on the Internet and also through proper signage and information at the site and there was never a lack of a properly informed volunteer or official. But McCloskey also added that a change in social behaviour was also a key to success. In his opinion, a visit to the Olympics is a memory that lasts only a few hours before one has to retire back to the safety of home or hotel.

Being a little more hygienic during that time is surely no great burden and may enhance the experience by preventing problems later on. Moreover, much like yawning, healthy behaviour is contagious and may lead others to adopt similar behaviours ultimately creating an epidemic of hygiene.

From all accounts, this perspective has been a resounding success and should serve as a shining light for the future as there are several germs on the horizon that need to be stopped. Most important of all is the new flu strain for 2012, H3N2v, which has been ravaging the Southern Hemisphere and appears to have made an early start to the flu season in North America.

For decades, hygiene has been shown to be the number one means to stop the spread of flu but getting that message across has never been easy even in the midst of a pandemic. Thanks to the success of the Olympics, however, there is a chance to impress upon people the benefits of hygiene and increase its usage and sharing.

Of course, a campaign featuring Usain Bolt washing his hands could never hurt.