Every two years the Olympics brings the world together to cherish the human values of courage, respect, equality, determination, and perseverance. To preserve this wonderful sporting tradition and the values that it stands for, public health must be prioritized. Public health is something often taken for granted at large-scale events when there are often concerns for more tangible public safety threats. However, the potential spread of disease is one of the greatest threats to public safety throughout and even after the Olympics when attendees return to their home countries.
The 2018 Winter Olympics Games in PyeongChang, South Korea have brought nearly 3,000 delegates from 206 countries together. This is exactly the type of gathering that involves a vast amount of human beings congregating in a disproportionately small area—an environment ripe to set off an outbreak of infectious disease. The extreme, low temperatures of South Korea’s winter season pose an additional risk for the development and spread of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections. Also, the fact that there were already confirmed cases of infectious disease at the Olympic Athletes Village right before the Games’ kick-off day and the source remains unknown indicates a risk that the diseases are readily contactable. Together these factors create a real threat of the transmission of communicable disease at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Currently, the most widespread outbreak and the greatest threat to spectators and athletes have been the norovirus. The norovirus is an extremely infectious disease that is commonly transmitted through food, water, and the touching of contaminated surfaces. There is no vaccine for it, and 30 percent of people who are exposed to it become infected. Although the virus is rarely life-threatening, it causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, often leading to severe gastrointestinal symptoms including stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Concerns about the spread of norovirus existed before the games even began when 41 security guards in Pyeongchang fell ill with symptoms of the virus. All 41 guards were reported to have been staying in the same building, public health officials sequestered a total of 1,200 Olympic guards, replacing them with 900 military personnel. Further, the hygiene at accommodation venues was thoroughly inspected, and also, water at drinking sources was tested for contamination. Nevertheless, it has been confirmed that more than 200 people, including a few athletes, contracted norovirus.
A second disease threat is seasonal influenza. This virus is hard to detect and manage because often people are capable of transmitting it before they even get sick. Additionally, the low rate of flu vaccination among athletes creates a greater risk that an athlete will contract and spread the virus.
Of greatest concern is the high levels of flu throughout East Asia. The Korean Peninsula is especially struggling to battle the flu epidemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) has confirmed 81,640 cases of A/H1N1 influenza in North Korea between the one month period between December 2017 and January 2018 alone. The risk of the seasonal influenza spreading is high in any densely populated area during the winter season. The persisting severely cold winter temperatures only prolong the occurrence of influenza-type illnesses. Only effective surveillance, contract tracing, and treatment measures help mitigate the continuing spread of the seasonal influenza.
Aside from threats of the norovirus and seasonal influenza, South Korea’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs recently announced the presence of avian influenza at chicken farms around only 80 miles away from where the Olympic Games are taking place. This particular strain of influenza is not typically contracted through human-to-human transmission but rather only after direct exposure to infected poultry. However, if contracted, the fatality rate is 68.75%. Although there have only been 16 confirmed cases in China since 2014, the seriousness of the virus poses a risk that is not worth ignoring. As a precaution to its potential threat, South Korea inspected and culled around half a million chickens in the weeks preceding the Olympics. This kind of preventative measure is warranted, and the public should further be kept notified of any updates of this virus spreading due to its severe effect.
Overall, preventative measures such as the testing of food and water and the installation of hand sanitizers at Olympic venues, or anything that serves as a reminder for athletes and spectators to wash their hands more frequently, are critical. Both organizers and people attending the events must take precautions.
As these 2018 Winter Olympic Games come to an end, the prevention of the spread of infectious disease will continue to be essential for the safety and wellbeing of those who attended the games as well as anyone susceptible to the transfer of disease through contact with an Olympic Game attendee. The concern should not just be for the attendees; individuals who became ill at the Olympics will carry viruses back home to their respective countries, which can potentially lead to a more widespread epidemic. Public health precautions and effective infection control strategies are critical to prevent the spread of disease before, during, and after the Games take place. Having the Olympics without taking proper public health measures would be ignoring the universal fundamental ethical principles of social responsibility and human dignity—values that the Olympics are supposed to stand for.
Joanna Kluzowska is currently a second-year, part-time law student at DePaul University College of Law. Ms. Kluzowska graduated from Loyola University Chicago with dual degrees: one in Business Administration for finance and another in Life and Sciences for political science. She is an active member in DePaul’s Health Law Institute and Law Review, and will complete her law degree with a focus on health care law in 2020.