With just three weeks to go before the Olympic flame is officially lit in London, the UK’s Health Protection Agency (HPA) announced this week that it is “Games ready”, with a rapid-response system in place to keep spectators and athletes healthy. Over the course of the 16-day event, the public health body will pinpoint and respond to any emerging health hazards or infectious disease outbreaks that may occur among the 11 million ticketholders and 15,000 athletes expected to descend upon the British capital.
Leading the effort will be the Olympics lead health director Brian McCloskey, who is also the HPA’s regional director for London. A family doctor by training, McCloskey played a major role in the agency’s emergency response to the London tube bombings in 2005 and helped craft the public health preparedness guidelines for the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Ahead of this year’s Summer Games, McCloskey spoke with Nature Medicine about the HPA’s key preparations and overarching public health challenges for the 30th Olympiad.
Which infectious diseases will you be tracking during the Games?
We will monitor all infectious diseases, but the main ones that will likely be an issue for us will be gastrointestinal diseases such as food poisoning and infectious diseases such as measles. There have been measles outbreaks in Europe and in UK in the past couple of years and those haven’t gone away.
Does hosting the Olympics in the British capital pose any unique challenges in terms of monitoring these diseases?
London does these kind of events on a regular basis, although the Olympics is bigger than any event we’ve done so far. One of the issues related to mass-gathering medicine is that London is the most globally-connected city in the world in terms of international flight connections. And the number of cities that have a direct flight into London is probably greater than any other city in the world.
What biomedical tools are your team relying on to gather data?
We are putting in place for the games—and as a legacy after the games—in-hands diagnostic capacity for gastrointestinal and other illnesses. Particularly we will rely on multiplex PCR. This will give us characterization of the organism causing food poisoning much more rapidly than our older system that relied on culturing bacteria. And because of its multiplex nature, we can test for a range of diseases with the same specimen at the same time.
How has London changed its health surveillance system in anticipation of the Games?
We’re expanding surveillance from what we currently have, which is based in primary care, into hospitals and walk-in clinics that will be located throughout London. We have also revised our outbreak plans so that we have one outbreak plan across the entire city, which will stay in place after the Games. London has 33 separate boroughs and previously they had separate plans for investigating food outbreaks, but now we have one plan.