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London 2012: The Most Hygienic Games Ever?

Posted: 08/03/2012 7:45 am

The Olympics are less than a week over and there have been a number of surprises. Some have been dramatic, such as the dramatic rise of American swimmer Ryan Lochte, who finally appeared from beneath the domineering shadow of Michael Phelps and won the 400 Individual Medley. Others have been inspiring including the fairy tale-ish protagonist Zara Phillips who won a silver medal in equestrian eventing and had it presented to her by her mother, Princess Anne.

There have also been a few heartbreaks, none more painful than the plight of our Canadian champion and sweetheart, Clara Hughes, whose attempts to become Canada's most decorated Olympian may not be realized.

There has been one more bombshell occurring in London -- though it hasn't quiet made the same kind of headlines as Ye Shiwen . In contrast to all the prognostication of infectious diseases outbreaks and epidemics that could potentially lead to a pandemic, including my own, the reality is that germs have played almost no role at the Games.

According to Brian McCloskey, the national lead health director for the Olympic and Paralympic Games for the Health Protection Agency, the level of infectious diseases as measured through syndromic surveillance , rapid laboratory testing and undiagnosed serious infectious illness surveillance has essentially flatlined. When it comes to the most prevalent of diseases, gastrointestinal illnesses such as norovirus, Campylobacter and E. coli, Dr. McCloskey is also somewhat surprised. "We expected to see outbreaks of diarrhea and vomiting but the data suggests that it's not worse than normal."

This promising achievement is not unlike winning a gold medal; it is due to years of training, collaboration and organization. "We've been preparing for this event for seven years," he says. "Should anything happen, we have the ability to react and control the situation as needed. We are working with medical services and we have Public Health teams in clinics."

McCloskey also adds that a temporal-spatial understanding of mass gatherings and how infections can spread has helped. Having used the Hajj and the Vancouver Olympics as a basis, McCloskey has found a way to envision the potential hotspots and how to keep them safe. "People go to an event for three to five hours and then head back. We therefore have established high standards at venues and the village, which have the highest traffic. By all accounts, this approach seems to be working."

There have been a few notable exceptions. The Australian superstar swimmer, Cate Campbell had to pull out of the 100 m freestyle due to a gastrointestinal illness and the American hopeful, Kate Ziegler finished last in the 800 freestyle due to the flu.

In addition, several archers from India fell ill after arriving in London and missed out on the medals at the team competition. But perhaps the most notable case of infection had nothing to do with the athletes as the legendary Tom Jones has to cancel a concert due to bronchitis. Yet in comparison to the feared incidences of measles, pertussis, influenza, MRSA, tuberculosis and norovirus, these cases have been considered to be outliers rather than the norm.

The purview of a more hygienic world is not lost with this outcome. There is a sense that hygiene can be improved and that the spread of illness does not have to be the norm. If a congregation of several million people from all corners of the earth can gather and not spread disease; then perhaps the same can be envisioned for the office, social gatherings or the home. These Olympics could spark a new direction for healthy living by providing a global example of how to live in harmony with each other and with germs.

It's perhaps overly optimistic but I hope that come next week, when Jacques Rogge closes the ceremonies, he adds a little extra to his usual proclamation.

"You have presented to the world the best and the most hygienic Olympic Games ever!'

 

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