Global Alert and Response (GAR)

London Olympics: enhancing disease surveillance and response

More than 14 000 athletes will participate in the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which opened on 27 July, and 9 million tickets are expected to be sold for various sporting and cultural events across the United Kingdom. During all of this, WHO is providing technical support to the UK Health Protection Agency (HPA) in enhancing disease surveillance and response during the Games.

The London Regional Office of HPA (a WHO Collaborating Centre on Mass Gatherings and High Visibility/High Consequence Events) invited WHO experts to observe public health procedures put in place during the Games and to contribute to the assessment of public health risks that might affect the events. Five WHO experts, including representatives from EURO and SEARO, are embedded on a rotating basis as liaison officers at the HPA's Olympics Coordination Centre (OCC) throughout the Games.

HPA as a whole is responsible for public health throughout the Games, including in the areas of media and communications, national and international surveillance and outbreak response. During the Games, it will play a key role in ensuring that the health of visitors and participants is protected from infectious diseases and environmental hazards.

WHO is supporting HPA by:

  • mobilizing WHO's Virtual Interdisciplinary Advisory Network on mass gatherings (VIAG) and the WHO InterCluster Working group on mass gatherings (ICWG) to have at hand technical expertise and experience to address any uncertainties around public health at mass gatherings;
  • contributing to the risk assessment of acute public health events under the International Health Regulations;
  • facilitating the maximum positive impact from the investments made in health systems' capacity in preparation for the Games by assisting with HPA’s legacy capture projects and facilitating an International Observer Programme to be run during the Paralympic Games in early September;
  • WHO also worked closely with the HPA in preparation for the Games by assessing the preparedness of England's health system for crises: the assessment report includes recommendations on how best to increase England's capacity for mass gatherings and extreme events;
  • assisting with improvement of the WHO/HPA online Planning and Assessment Tool for mass gatherings preparedness during the Olympic and Paralympic Games;
  • carrying out a survey and analysis of geographic information systems and information and communication technology resources in the context of mass gatherings;
  • production of an e-learning course (entitled “Introduction to public health at mass gatherings”) and pilot testing during the London 2012 International Observer Programme.

In addition, HPA, WHO and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will jointly publish a weekly bulletin during the London 2012 Games on their web sites. WHO will incorporate the lessons learned into its advice on preparations for future mass gatherings.

Preparedness, surveillance and response

Four weeks before the official start of the Olympic Games in London, HPA enhanced its programme on disease surveillance and response and its laboratory services. The programme covers the whole country and is intended to detect, analyse and eradicate, as soon as possible, public and environmental health threats before during and after the Games.

The WHO liaison officer is in place to complement the daily work of the HPA Olympics Coordination Centre's public health surveillance and risk assessment/management system. Before, during and after the Games, HPA is collecting information on a daily basis about the occurrence of acute communicable disease outbreaks and other public and environmental health threats. This data is collected from across the country and (for the first time) from inside the Olympic village. The analysis of this data forms the basis for daily reports on the public health situation that the OCC passes to the Government of the United Kingdom for use in decision-making, and shares with experts in WHO and ECDC.

Dr Brian McCloskey, leader of the OCC team and HPA's responsible officer for the London 2012 Games, said: "These new and enhanced systems will provide the first indication of emerging infections in the community and hospitals if they are to occur. Our experts will analyse surveillance data daily to identify issues of public health significance that could have implications for the Games. We will be providing expert advice to clinicians, the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) and Government on how to respond to and limit any threat to public health."