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  • WHO Doctor: "Very Real" Risk of Ebola Transmission in Sports -- On the Record


    (ATR) The team leader of Risk Assessment and Decision Support Systems at the World Health Organization spoke to Around the Rings about the impact of the Ebola virus on sports, medical procedure for large-scale sporting events and more.

    Dr. Maurizio Barbeschi joined the WHO in 2003. During his career, he's worked with the UN Monitoring and Verification Commission and was also involved with the Olympic Games in Athens, Torino, Beijing, Vancouver and London, as well as the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.

    Dr. Barbeschi spoke with Around the Rings last week.

    Around the Rings: What is the danger of Ebola being spread at sporting events, such as the Olympics or the FINA swimming championships? Is the risk the same from one event to the next?

    Dr. Maurizio Barbeschi: It’s very real. Every decision should be risk-assessed and based, not just fear-based. The risk assessment takes into consideration possible exposure, as well as the medical measures that are in place. In terms of who can be exposed, there are different groups. The athletes and the athletes family is one group who needs to be closely observed. If they’re sick, they should not compete. There are doctors who check the team for doping, and then there are doctors who check those doctors. So, there is a whole system in place, by which athletes are checked. That is one sect of the universe, living in a cocoon.

    The second group is the fans who travel to watch the sporting event, who may bring the virus over from a single country. They are bringing in profiles of diseases, which may not be the endemic one, but they are somehow coherent. Another group of the population at large could be the people supporting the event, such as bus drivers or vendors or hotel attendants. These are the ways that we do the risk assessment.

    A hazmat worker removes a barrel from an apartment complex in Texas, where a healthcare worker tested positive for Ebola. (Getty Images)
    For each category, we have a risk profile, and for that risk we see what kind of measures are in place. The analysis of the risk is different for each event, but because of the process we use, not the result. If you are a boxer or a fighter who is more at risk of shedding blood, of course the risk is higher. However, you’d also be better checked and monitored than other athletes. So, there is always an exposure risk, and the medical measures.

    ATR: How does the World Health Organization communicate with sporting bodies, such as the IOC or FIFA, about developments or precautions?

    MB: We are in constant contact with federations, especially with the IOC. We work with the medical staff in terms of revising the manual to have a better legacy at the end of these events. Everything in an event should be there to protect the event in good faith and to leave a better legacy for the country after it, as we saw in South Africa after the FIFA World Cup. So we are making acute preparations for legacy. That is also rooted in the way they’re going to assign the games more and more. No longer will people be proposing, “I have a better Olympic village,” because common people can get very sick in a city, not just athletes. The whole system is looked at with the eyes of leaving a better legacy.

    ATR: Have any federations contacted the World Health Organization looking for information about Ebola?

    MB: Absolutely, a plethora. We are really close with everybody, from FIE to the IOC. I am the head of the mass gathering group, and we have seven collaborating centers in each continent. There is a group of experts with technical guidance for each of the areas planning an event. There is an entire machinery in place for mass gathering medicine.

    ATR: What procedures do you think should be taken in the sporting world to contain the spread of the disease?

    MB: That is a nice question. Whatever public image has to convince the people against fear, against stigma, against prudence, against hysteria is welcome. For example, Ronaldo and the German team promoted vaccinations during the UEFA Euro Cup. So the sport itself, along with donations, should really take a face and say, I am the positive effect of the planet, rather than the crux of the problem. It is a wonderful occasion for the sporting universe to change face and become part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

    Athletes from Sierra Leone were held out of the Nanjing Youth Olympic Games due to Ebola concerns. (Getty Images)
    ATR: Have special policies or guidelines been created for West African athletes? Do you think that’s necessary?

    MB: No. It goes back to my first response, regarding the risk-based approach. You understand the fact that there’s a risk at all is part of the occupation and part of the sport. There should be no stigma towards athletes from that part of the world whatsoever.

    ATR: When I interviewed different federations about their response to the Ebola virus, most were hesitant to talk about the issue. Does that stem from a lack of education about the disease, or from something else?

    MB: Most of the federations are not experts in public health, and you were talking to press people. I would be scared too. The medical doctors of federations and events could help you. When a city is hosting, they will have to liaise with the public doctor working the event and the teams. That’s the moment when, if they are educated, they can ask about protection and guidance. That’s the key moment where an opportunity forms to mitigate the risk and create a better legacy.

    ATR: Ebola is obviously a pressing issue, but do you think there’s a particularly high risk of the virus spreading through sport? How concerned should the average person be?

    MB: It depends on where and which sport, of course. But the average people understand sport as a moment of joy and peace, rather than a moment of fear. That’s the way I look at it.

    ATR: Is there anything you would like to say that we haven’t asked, whether about Ebola in particular or other communicable diseases and how they affect sporting events?

    MB: One thing – Sunday or Monday will mark the end of the Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. Sporting mass gatherings were managed so well in Nigeria, and I was there. I was part of the “dream team,” to prevent Lagos’ 30 million people from becoming a problem. That was an example of sports, and everybody else, really jumping in to talk to the community, to talk to the people, and to be a leading example. To me, that’s a winning story.

    Conducted by Andrew Murrell

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