WHO monitors for H1N1 at '12 games

Updated: November 29, 2009, 2:03 PM ET
Associated Press

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The World Health Organization is sending a representative to the 2010 Winter Olympics to monitor for potential disease outbreaks, and organizers and health experts have taken steps to protect against the H1N1 virus.

Planning for any impact H1N1 could have on the games has been under way since April, when British Columbia health officials increased the stockpile of antiviral drugs available in the province, according to briefing notes released under an Access to Information request. The WHO declared an official global pandemic in June.

Most athletes, officials and spectators are expected to be vaccinated against H1N1 by the time the Winter Olympics begin in February.

"If the vaccination rate is high enough, I don't think H1N1 is going to be a risk," said Dr. Patricia Daly, chief medical health officer for Vancouver Coastal Health, the agency overseeing health services for the Olympics.

British Columbia's provincial health officer said the original supply was boosted by 3 million doses, bringing the total amount available to 10 million.

About 250,000 spectators are expected at the games, and there will be about 10,000 media members, and 5,000 athletes and officials.

The expected high rate of vaccination doesn't mean the virus won't be present, just that drastic measures won't likely be needed, said Dr. Perry Kendall.

"I can't imagine levels of absenteeism from influenza -- whether it's seasonal or from H1N1 -- being so high you couldn't operate the games," he said.

Even so, swine flu remains a top issue for security planners.

"Even with the injections and the boosters and everything else that comes with it, [H1N1 is] still probably one of the biggest things that concern me," said Bud Mercer, assistant commissioner of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and head of the Integrated Security Unit.

The ISU will have 750 officers on standby in case of illness or another major emergency and VANOC, the organizing committee, has a pool of volunteers that could be dispatched in an emergency.

The committee is also asking its staff and volunteers to get vaccinated, with plans in the works to offer the shots when volunteers pick up their uniforms in December.

Vancouver organizers and the International Olympic Committee have also recommended to all of the national Olympic committees that their athletes and officials be vaccinated against both H1N1 and seasonal influenza.

Daly said international athletes will be offered the vaccine when they get to Canada, with some teams arriving as early as January to begin training.

Public health nurses at the athletes village will conduct tests and monitor for illness at venues, including hotels where officials and sponsors are staying.

It's the convergence of people from all over the world in Vancouver that's prompted the WHO to get involved, said Dr. Mike Wilkinson, VANOC's director of medical services.

"They are there to help us in monitoring anything that may come from outside, any of the incidences from any of the areas where the athletes might be coming from," he said.

Seasonal flu is always a risk at a Winter Olympics, but monitoring done during prior games has shown little danger of a major outbreak.

At the Olympic village during the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, 188 cases of influenza were diagnosed out of the more than 2,000 visits to the clinic there, according to statistics from Utah health researchers.

During the 2006 Olympics in Turin the incidence of influenza-like illness was less than that recorded during the same period a year earlier, according to Italian researchers.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press