The Olympics are certainly a time to celebrate. Athletes from around the world gather in one city to test their skills and abilities against their international peers while spectators fill stadiums to cheer on their respective national sport ambassadors. The world comes together to share an atmosphere of competitive spirit, national pride, and belief in the good of others.
The Games also represent a unique opportunity for the world to share its germs and for public health officials to find a way to stem the tide of infection.
The threat of an outbreak at the Olympics has been the focus of public health officials for decades although the focus on specific sporting events only really began in the late 1990s with the first surveillance tool introduced at the Atlanta Games in 1996. From that point on, public health officials and epidemiologists have focused on the Olympics, as well as other huge sporting events such as the World Cup to identify any potential problems and resolve them before they can spread.
A perfect example of a surveillance system at work was the combined effort of the World Health Organization and the Greek Ministry of Health and Social Solidarity during the Olympic Games in Athens. Using an impressive system that involved hospitals, doctors and health officials, the team found close to 300 cases of infection over the course of the Games including outbreaks of Salmonella and tuberculosis.
The information helped the WHO to develop a protocol for infection surveillance and control during the Games and other events, collectively known as mass gatherings in the hopes that infections could be identified in the early stages of an outbreak and that cases could be minimized.
Yet despite the incredible efforts of public health community, as the world begins the 2012 Olympics, infectious diseases have gained an unprecedented amount of the media spotlight. From the threat of measles, which led to an outbreak at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and somehow found its way to the Super Bowl, to the cancellation of the Australian pre-Games swim meet due to whooping cough to the handshaking ban requested by the British Olympic Association -- one might believe that avoiding infections is in itself worthy of a gold medal.
As the lead up to the Games ends, the fear of germs has been raised to a level not seen since the days of SARS or the pandemic flu. It's now a matter of time to see whether the fears will be realized or fade away as the athletic achievements take over.
Either way, this increased attention to germs offers a sense of hope for a healthier future. Regardless of whether an infection happens during the two week event, the concern has been stated and taken seriously.
After years of futile efforts to inform the public about antibiotic resistance, the return of vaccine-preventable diseases and the rise of new and emerging infections, the tide has turned and there may be no better time to share the message of health and hygiene with the world.
Now that truly is worth its weight in gold.