Threats and Responses to Infectious Diseases in Pyeongchang and Beyond

Despite the fanfare that accompanies the Olympic games, the mass gathering of such events present a series of challenges in combating infectious diseases. The Olympic games in Pyeongchang have proven no different in this regard. Among the more serious outbreaks beholding the Korean peninsula before and during the games has included both the norovirus and the H1N1 strain of the seasonal influenza. Norovirus, a highly infectious disease typically spread through contaminated food or drink, had reportedly infected 128 Olympic staff and media members at the start of the Games. While typically not fatal except for more vulnerable populations such as children and adults 65 years and older in developing countries, the norovirus was a cause of concern among Olympic officials due to the highly infectious nature of the disease, potentially affecting athletes and other individuals at Pyeongchang who’s participation and well-being the Olympics largely depends on. Symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting, fever, headaches, and dehydration, with more serious symptoms to the previously aforementioned vulnerable population demographic.

The other cause for concern at the Olympics included the H1N1 seasonal influenza. While not as serious as the H3N2 strain that has accounted for more than 80% of cases in the United States this winter, H1N1 has been widespread in both South and North Korea this flu season. According to the World Health Organization (“WHO”), North Korea had 81,640 confirmed cases of influenza between December 1, 2017 and January 16, 2018, while South Korea had 1,250 cases over the same timeframe. The situation in North Korea was serious enough to warrant the dispersion of $270,000 in emergency aid to North Korea by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, but the small North Korean delegation to the Pyeongchang Olympics posed a small threat to any larger threat of influenza in South Korea. While there were many reported cases of the flu in North Korea, its delegation was too small to pose a major public safety concern during the Games. On the other hand, the intimate nature of the Games presented a change of influenza spreading, considering that East Asia “had already experienced high levels of illness indicators and influenza activity...reported in most of the countries [in the region]” by the WHO.

The third and last potential concern of infectious disease heading into the Pyeongchang Olympics included H5N6 avian flu. While this particular strain does not normally exhibit human-to-human transmission, the fatality rate for this disease is close to 70%. Exhibiting a larger threat in the surrounding region such as China, however, there are almost no cases of the avian flu in South Korea, thanks in large part to the careful monitoring of local poultry farms. As a result, the avian flu posed a very small threat to athletes and other participants at the Olympic games as a result.

Despite the cause for concern of infectious disease in mass gatherings, however, it is important to keep such potential public safety threats in perspective. While the Zika virus posed a potentially serious threat during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio and a norovirus outbreak at the World Athletic Championship in London, UK causing several athletes to withdraw from competition, effective management and public safety measures typically insure that actual threats posed by these diseases are held in check and are smaller than initially feared by the participating athletes and public alike.

Examples of effective implementation of public health management includes the H1N1 preparedness plan by Saudi Arabia during the H1N1 influenza pandemic during the Hajj in 2009. Accessibility to hygiene and health facilities has continued to insure lower risks of acquiring infectious disease during the 2017 Hajj, where threats infectious diseases were considered to be low, despite millions of participants. In Pyeongchang, the International Olympic Committee aggressively moved to prevent a major virus outbreak during the games. Public safety measures included quarantining security staff and organizers, raising awareness amongst the public and instructions on steps for preventing and treating norovirus, and investigating food chain safety. Because of these measures, the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games largely averted a major public health​ crisis.

Alec Deborin is currently a second-year student at DePaul University College of Law. Mr. Deborin graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in History. He is an active member in the Jaharis Health Law Institute and will complete his law degree and certificate in health law in 2019.