Experts: Vaccinations, Antiviral Supply Mean H1N1 No Threat to 2010 Olympics
Mon, 11/30/2009 - 4:13am
VANCOUVER — The World Health Organization is sending a representative to monitor for potential disease outbreaks at the 2010 Winter Olympics, but Games officials and health experts say the threat from H1N1 has likely passed. 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. Planning for the possible impact H1N1 could have on the Games has been underway since before the WHO declared an official global pandemic in June. In April, B.C. health officials made a decision to increase the stockpile of antiviral drugs available in the province because of the Games, according to briefing notes released under Access to Information. How much it cost was censored in the documents, but B.C.'s provincial health officer said in an interview the original supply was boosted by three million doses, bringing the total amount available to 10 million. About 250,000 spectators are expected at the Games, with most from within Canada. On top of that, there are about 10,000 media and 5,000 athletes and officials. The expected high rate of vaccination doesn't mean the virus won't be circulating during the Games, but the fact there are more than enough antivirals available means drastic measures just won't be necessary, said Dr. Perry Kendall. "I can't think why you'd close a venue," he said. "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." But the issue still remains top of mind for security planners. The risk that regular influenza might pose to the Games first surfaced in threat assessments beginning in 2008. In May 2009, concerns were raised that H1N1 could impact the Games, especially if it coincided with the peak of the common flu season. "The fusion of two very distinct flu strains — one as yet uncharted — could have a profound effect on the safety and security of the Vancouver Olympic Games," said the threat assessment obtained under Access to Information. Earlier in November, flu took down seven per cent of the staff participating in a massive pre-Games security exercise, said RCMP Assistant Commissioner Bud Mercer, the head of the Integrated Security Unit. "Even with the injections and the boosters and everything else that comes with it, it's (H1N1) still probably one of the biggest things that concern me," he said. Contingency plans for staffing are in place for both the security team overseeing the Games and Olympic organizers. The ISU will have 750 officers on stand-by, in case of illness or another major emergency. Back-up plans for the organizing committee include a mobile pool of volunteers who could be dispatched in short-order in case people fall ill. They're also asking all of their staff and volunteers to get vaccinated, though they can't make it a requirement. A minor controversy arose when it emerged that the torch relay team had been vaccinated ahead of the general public, but the decision was explained by the fact they were travelling to remote areas and could spread the virus there. But now that the vaccine is available to the public, plans are in the works to offer a vaccination clinic for volunteers when they come to 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 should be vaccinated against both H1N1 and seasonal influenza. IOC staff in Switzerland were offered the vaccine themselves last week. Daly said international athletes will be offered the vaccine when they get to Canada, as some teams will be arriving as early as January to begin training, so it could still be effective. 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, director of medical services for the organizing committee, known as VANOC. "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. "They are here to learn from us as well and pass that knowledge on to the WHO as far as pandemic planning and response for live events." Indeed, H1N1 has been a bit of a bonanza for the Games, allowing the cash-strapped organizing committee to sign a hand-sanitizer sponsor, ALDA Pharmaceuticals. One of the only outstanding issues of the pandemic plan is working on expanding the hours available for H1N1 testing and rapid turnaround for results. Public health nurses at the athletes village will conduct tests and monitor for illness at venues, including hotels where officials and sponsors are staying. VANOC's budget for medical services such as these is $12.8 million, with the funds coming from the province. Wilkinson said H1N1 hasn't affected their bottom line. Some of the measures being put in place are the result of a guide produced by the WHO to mass gatherings, which Vancouver health officials were involved with drafting. WHO representatives are currently on the ground in Saudi Arabia, where millions of Muslims are gathering for the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the Hajj. The WHO is watching there to see if the H1N1 virus spreads or mutates during the gathering or if other communicable diseases surface. But Daly said parallels can't be drawn for what might happen at the Hajj and what could happen in Vancouver. "When you look at the risk you have to look at where is the event being held and what are the risks within that country and what are the people coming to the event, what might they bring that could post a risk?," she said. "We are slightly different than the Hajj." Seasonal flu is always a risk for a Winter Olympics, but monitoring done during prior Games shows despite the crowds and close quarters during flu season, massive outbreaks didn't happen. At the Olympic village during the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, 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 Games in Torino, the incidence of influenza-like illness was less than that recorded during the same period a year earlier, according to Italian researchers.