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Norovirus Outbreak Hits Winter Olympic Games

FEB 12, 2018 | EINAV KEET
The XXIII Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games have begun in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, and as a norovirus outbreak has already hit the 2018 Winter Olympics, international and Korean health officials have issued health advisories for athletes and travelers.

Just days before the start of the Pyeongchang Olympics, an outbreak of norovirus hit at least 32 security personnel for the games, and there have now been 128 confirmed cases this week. Norovirus is a highly contagious illness that can cause inflammation of the stomach and intestines, leading to diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, and stomach pain. The virus spreads easily through infected individuals and contaminated food, water, and surfaces. While individuals with norovirus typically recover within 1 to 3 days, young children and older adults are more likely to experience severe dehydration, leading to serious and prolonged symptoms that may require hospitalization.

In Pyeongchang, the games’ organizers took extra precaution to avoid the spread of the norovirus outbreak to athletes, travelers, and staff by having about 1,200 members of the Olympics staff confined to their rooms and tested.

“To address the shortfall in security workforce due to the isolation, 900 military personnel have been deployed to take over the work of the civil safety personnel,” the organizing committee said in a statement, noting that tap water, food preparation, and food items would be examined as possible contamination sources. “They will work across 20 venues until all affected workforce is able to return to duty.”

The summer and winter Olympic Games have a history of potential for infectious disease outbreaks and drawing health advisories from the World Health Organization (WHO), which most recently issued recommendations on avoiding Zika virus for those attending the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.

Now, the WHO has issued a health advisory with the Republic of Korea for travelers and those attending the Olympic Games. “The winter season in the Republic of Korea poses an increased risk of respiratory and gastrointestinal infections,” says the news release, noting that the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC) has reported recent increases in seasonal influenza activity and highly pathogenic avian influenza A(H5N6). With the international attendance, the WHO also warns that there is a small risk of the importation of other respiratory infections not normally seen in the Republic of Korea, including measles and diphtheria. During the winter season though, the risk of vector-borne diseases is considered to be low. “Additionally, crowding of visitors indoors during the Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games could increase the risk of spread of infections.”

The Republic of Korea has no vaccination requirements for entry into the country, but the KCDC has recommended Hepatitis A and seasonal influenza vaccination as a precaution. Korean officials have also advised visitors attending the Olympic Games to wash hands frequently and consume bottled water to avoid the risk of viral and bacterial food-borne illnesses. The WHO’s health advisory also noted that travelers engaging in sexual risk behaviors can minimize their exposure to sexually transmitted infections such as HIV, syphilis, gonorrhoea, chlamydia, herpes, and hepatitis B virus with condom use.
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