Tracking tool could prevent the spread of disease at Olympics

Technology tracking global population movements and infectious disease outbreaks using the internet could help officials planning the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Researchers in Canada have developed web-based software that monitors news reports of disease outbreaks around the world and combines it with real-time information on air-travel patterns.

They argue that the system has the potential to overcome some of the limitations, including delays in reporting and poor sensitivity, of traditional surveillance methods for mass gatherings (MGs) such as the upcoming Olympics.

‘An integrated platform of this kind could help identify infectious disease outbreaks around the world that could threaten the success of MGs at the earliest possible stages,’ said lead researcher Dr Kamran Khan from St Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

It could also ‘provide insights into which of those outbreaks are most likely to result in disease spread into the MG and identify the most effective public health measures to mitigate the risk of disease importation and local spread, all in near real time’.

The researchers have created an online tool called Bio.Diaspora to predict the numbers and origins of travellers to MGs and to direct disease surveillance to locations where large population movements to the MG host city are expected.

In a paper published in medical journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, the research team applied its model to the upcoming London Olympics to identify which potential outbreaks would need most attention.

For example, plague in New Mexico, US, would be of low public health relevance to the Games because of the small risk of disease translocation, whereas measles in Berlin, Germany, would require more attention from public health officials.

The paper said that this modelling will inform London’s planning for the Olympics and complement disease surveillance systems in the UK.

But the researchers pointed out that surveillance would need to be integrated at local and global levels to provide the best intelligence.

‘Although the scientific and technological components and data sources needed to generate real-time intelligence that could mitigate the risks of infectious diseases during MGs do exist, their integration is suboptimum,’ they said in the paper. ‘So far, these systems remain weakly connected to local surveillance efforts, including those of MGs.’