Health planning for large public events
Mass gatherings – including large sports competitions, and political, religious, cultural and artistic events – draw large crowds. They can be settings for disease outbreaks and other health problems, and may promote unhealthy products and result in unhealthy behaviour. All this can stress the public health system and resources of host countries.
Many large public events are taking place in the WHO European Region in 2012, including the Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan, the UEFA European Football Championship (EURO 2012) hosted by Poland and Ukraine, and the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London, United Kingdom.
Working with partners, WHO has produced health advice for people attending such mass gatherings, and supports national authorities in preparing for them. The goal is to make large international events safe from public health risks.
WHO and the Health Protection Agency (HPA) of the United Kingdom cooperated to provide health advice to physicians for teams taking part in EURO 2012 or in the Olympics. HPA has also produced guidance for travellers to London during the Olympics, alongside the WHO/Europe health recommendations for travellers to EURO 2012 discussed below.
Challenges of mass gatherings
Mass gatherings present complex challenges to governments. The influx of large numbers of people, often from different countries and cultures, and the infrastructural changes needed to support them can severely strain public health systems and services, compromising countries’ ability to detect problems and respond effectively. These challenges include: ¨
increased travel to and from the events or various event locations;
communication of risks to multinational participants;
stretching of health systems, which may have to operate for long periods at surge capacity;
difficulties in implementing business-as-usual health measures;
high visibility and pressure, especially for widely broadcast events; and
possible increase of unhealthy behaviours among attendees.
Countries and organizers must conduct early risk assessment, planning and system enhancement to identify potential public health risks, both natural and man-made, and prevent, minimize and respond to public health emergencies. Such work may also help to strengthen health systems’ emergency preparedness as a whole (through an all-hazard approach to preparedness planning) and support the implementation of the International Health Regulations (IHR).
The action taken to capitalize on the opportunities presented by hosting mass gatherings can have a valuable legacy: a sustainable positive impact on public health systems. This is the cornerstone of WHO’s involvement in mass gatherings.
Preparedness for a mass gathering requires coordination between the sectors and levels in the host country, and with other countries and international institutions in the Region, such as the European Union and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
WHO/Europe supports countries by providing advice and technical assistance on health protection and planning, disease prevention, and alert and response measures for mass gatherings. Specific areas of WHO support include:
all-hazard risk assessment and response: correct standards for risk assessment, surveillance and response, including outbreak management, infection control and vaccination;
emergency medical services and hospitals: plans to manage mass casualties or fatalities and prepare for emergencies in the community, as well as at event venues and related locations (such as fan zones);
laboratory capacity: ensuring adequate diagnostic capacities (including human resources and reagents) and transport procedures;
travel medicine: procedures to provide updated health advice and vaccination guidance for visitors on vaccinations, food and water safety, and other information, including emergency contact numbers;
promotion of healthy behaviours: activities before and during mass gatherings to encourage, for example, increased physical activity, cessation of tobacco use, avoidance of excess alcohol and using safe sex practices.
In addition, countries need to build preparedness for public health emergencies of international concern, as defined by the IHR. They may need to strengthen core capacities, such as managing points of entry and disease surveillance.
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