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Sochi, Brazil and a Global Health Nightmare

The passing of four years signifies the completion of an important unit of time for the sporting world, a marker that brings the World Cup and the Olympic Games back, blissfully, to the forefront of the global stage with 2014 being no exception. This year, Brazil will host the FIFA World Cup and Sochi will host the Winter Olympics, to begin June 12 and February 6, respectively.

Headlines anticipate security concerns for both events, which include the threat of terror attacks, widespread protests and general mayhem.

In Sochi, officials have mobilized thousands of security cameras, instituted new security checks and passport screenings, deployed scores of military personnel and amped up surveillance to ensure that “everyone in the city… feel[s] at home and safe.”

Authorities in Brazil are making similar arrangements in hopes that extensive precautionary measures will entice tourists despite the nation’s — particularly, Rio de Janeiro — volatile and violent history. Furthermore, Colonel Alexandre Augusto Aragon, head of the Brazilian National Security Force, recently revealed that 10,000 hand-selected riot troops would police the 12 cities hosting soccer matches this summer.

These reports serve as reminders that mass gatherings, even of sportsmen, can spell danger for participants and fans alike. These events are, moreover, virtual breeding grounds for another invisible threat: pathogens.

The less-publicized public health risks inherent in occasions similar to the Olympic Games are familiar to virtually every global health organization. The World Health Organization (WHO) maintains a Global Alert and Response page dedicated to mitigating risks associated with mass gatherings, which top officials consider “a stress test for public health.”

Even nations with well-established health services and fully-briefed support staff can be overwhelmed by the burden associated with an unexpected outbreak in a mass gathering situation. Not only do gatherings draw visitors from a variety of geographic areas (read: different regions of germs) but they are also, by nature, densely packed and fraught with opportunities for transmission.

WHO officials employ the International Health Regulations to govern disease surveillance programs in the 196 countries that have agreed to certain legal rights and obligations described in the regulations in applicable circumstances. Should unexpected cases of influenza, polio or respiratory illness surface, Russia and Brazil will undertake highly targeted, pre-mediated actions to prevent a public health nightmare.

Unfortunately, very real risks to traveler and fan health go generally unmentioned by the press, whose stories generally touch on political and public interest stories associated with the Olympic Games and the World Cup. Any participant in 2014’s festivities should ensure that they are up-to-date with annual and seasonal vaccines, including the flu and measles.

Appropriate action and active awareness will spell gold for Russia and Brazil, nations hoping to leave a positive public health legacy on the landscape of sports history.

Casey Ernstes

Sources: CBS News, The Huffington Post, The New York Time, The World Health Organization

Photo: The Age