News Note: Norovirus outbreak threatens the Olympics

The HealthMap team at Boston Children's is currently tracking norovirus at the Olympics
The Computational Epidemiology Team at Boston Children’s Hospital tracks online, informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats through a platform called HealthMap. This is an image of what their surveillance dashboard is currently tracking (Feb. 15, 2018) in South Korea. Visit http://www.healthmap.org/en/ for more.

The 2018 Winter Olympics have brought nearly 3,000 delegates from 206 countries together in PyeongChang, South Korea. But just a week after kicking off on February 8, the games and its attendees are already being interrupted by a fast-spreading norovirus outbreak.

Norovirus is an extremely infectious disease transmitted through food, water or by touching a contaminated surface. Infection causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines, which can lead to symptoms including stomach pains, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.

In PyeongChang, there have already been 199 confirmed cases of norovirus — many of those sickened have been security guards hired for the games. Due to severe gastrointestinal symptoms, 41 guards have been hospitalized and more than 1,200 were placed in quarantine. 

Tracking disease at the Rio Olympics. This year, the HealthMap team is tracking norovirus in PyeongChang.In the summer of 2016, the HealthMap team tracked Zika and other health threats at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Full story.

Given its high level of infectiousness, the norovirus outbreak poses a considerable threat to the athletes and spectators attending the games. The large influx of international travelers converging on PyeongChang provides norovirus with ample opportunity to spread rampantly.

While the source of the outbreak is still unknown, the security guards were all staying at a youth training center in PyeongChang. Testing of the center’s food and water sources is underway.

In addition to the norovirus outbreak directly impacting Olympic games personnel, there is rising concern over swine flu and avian flu in the Korean peninsula. North Korea has been experiencing an outbreak of Influenza A/H1N1, also known as swine flu, while South Korea has confirmed the presence of a highly pathogenic strain of avian flu at two chicken farms.

To date, at least 154 of those who were placed in isolation for norovirus infection have already recovered and left quarantine. Hand sanitizers have been installed at the Olympic venues to encourage hand hygiene and signs have been posted reminding attendees to wash their hands frequently.

Adapted from a Disease Daily story by Jackie Sheridan, an intern with the Computational Epidemiology Group at Boston Children’s Hospital.