Olympic organizers look out for infectious diseases

With an estimated 14,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and millions of visitors arriving from around the world to cheer them on, some Londoners may fear catching more than Olympic fever.

But U of T’s Dr. Kamran Khan is on alert for any sign of trouble.

“This is an unprecedented period in history, where every few years we are exposed to disease,” says Khan. The associate professor of infectious diseases is an expert on outbreaks of illness such as West Nile, SARS or H1N1.

“In many ways, it’s just a result of globalization,” Khan adds. “With two and a half billion travellers boarding commercial flights annually, we are witnessing the highest ever amounts of global connectivity.”

Khan leads Bio.Diaspora, a research project originally inspired by the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto. The Games are providing the perfect opportunity for Khan to test his theories in collaboration with the Health Protection Agency in the UK.

Bio.Diaspora (meaning “scattering of life”) draws on various scientific disciplines in an attempt to better understand how to anticipate and respond to infectious disease threats. The project tracks international travellers and operates within the context of globalization, population mobility and growth, urbanization, and climate change, Khan says.

“Interconnectivity is a very important reality of the world today,” says Khan. “As much as there are benefits from interconnectivity, the world also shares risks in ways it has never before."

Throughout the Games, Khan will rely on real-time geographic information systems and communicate with partners worldwide to identify and map the sources of any possible outbreaks. The project will conduct risk assessments by examining transnational movement from anywhere in the world at any time.

Khan’s team will be examining flight patterns and more than ten billion flight itineraries - about 95% of the world’s flights.

“We’re using the information to see how we are globally connected, and how we can use this information to determine if there is a significant risk,” explains Khan. The information will be passed on to the UK and the World Health Organization, to decide how to proceed.

Khan believes the most likely outcome would be no serious outbreak at all. But he knows it’s better to be safe than sorry.

“That’s the role from public health’s responsibility,” says Khan. “Plan for the worst and hope for the best. And that’s just to make sure if something does happen, then we’re prepared.”

Although a massive outbreak of infectious disease is unlikely, Khan suggests travellers meet with their doctors to talk about risks and obtain any necessary vaccinations. He also recommends arranging health coverage for emergencies.

“Many of us just hop on airplanes and go to other parts of the world, but we’re not necessarily mindful of what some of the risks might be,” says Khan.

Khan sees the Olympics as a learning experience and an opportunity to use Bio.Diaspora for other massive gatherings such as the FIFA World Cup and the Hajj pilgrimage to make mass gatherings safer.

“The hope is that we can work with governments to help them better utilise evidence and data to make better decisions about emerging disease threats,” says Khan who has already worked with the US government, Canadian government, and the EU.

“We’re hoping that this technology can help countries cooperate with each other.”

Internet site reference: http://www.news.utoronto.ca/tracking-infectious-disease-olympics

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