The Winter Olympic Games and the Super Bowl can offer fans not just exciting sports spectacles but also important health insights and information— everything from the risks of viruses and the value of hand washing to the dangers of head blows and why Americans may be slowly changing their minds about how they feel about violent recreations.
Let’s start with what can happen when you put more than 2,000 elite athletes from 92 nations in a village setting in Pyeongchang, South Korea. It’s no surprise that contagious illnesses can break out, and in this case the noxious norovirus. More than 100 cases of the highly infectious viral illness at the Olympic site have been confirmed already, and 1,200 people — many of them security guards for the Games — have been quarantined with disease symptoms. (The South Korean military has sent in forces to assist with security, in place of the quarantined guards).
Norovirus, aka the winter vomiting disease, is a gastrointestinal bug with other symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, and stomach pain, according to the according to the CDC. Its symptoms typically start 12 to 48 hours after patients come in contact with the virus. Symptoms might also include headache and body aches. Fever is uncommon. The sickness is highly contagious, spreading when viral particles get aerosolized over large areas. Hygiene becomes key in outbreaks, as public health experts have emphasized and global cruise lines have discovered.
As in dealing with all health contagions, it’s also important for all involved to wash their hands, carefully and often, and to contain sneezes, coughs, and other means by which the illness spreads. (Try to avoid thinking about norovirus and “projectile vomiting.”) With so many fans, athletes, officials, and Olympic workers gathered in one spot, it may be a challenge to contain this norovirus outbreak.
It’s also good to know that a corps of civic minded doctors, orthopedists, chiropractors, nurses, sports therapists, massage therapists, and more will volunteer to handle the medical needs of almost 250 American competitors in Pyeongchang.
Here’s hoping, too, that untold numbers of U.S. sports fans will watch a lot more of the Games because they wisely have chosen to stay home because they’re sick with the flu, the seasonal illness that’s sweeping the country.
As the Washington Post reported:
This flu season is turning out to be so intense that the number of people seeking care at doctors’ offices and emergency rooms has surged to levels not reported since the peak of the 2009 swine flu pandemic. … Another 10 children died in the week ending Feb. 2, bringing the total number of child deaths since this flu season began to at least 63. This is the number of reported deaths and likely does not include all children who have died. States are not required to report adult flu deaths. Flu activity is still widespread … Overall hospitalizations [see graph at top] are also now significantly higher than what officials have normally seen this time of year since the CDC began using this tracking system in 2010… In particular, officials are seeing unusually high levels of hospitalizations in non-elderly adults, with the rates for 50-to-64-year-olds significantly higher than what they were at the same period in the severe 2014-2015 season with the same predominant flu strain. The latest weekly report shows 1 out of every 13 doctor visits last week was for fever [see chart above], cough and other symptoms of the flu, matching the peak levels during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. It was higher than any other seasonal flu season since 2003, when officials changed the way flu is tracked.
With most cases of both the flu and norovirus, doctors offer the same counsel: Stay at home (repeat that advice a couple of times), get rest, take in lots of liquids, and if fever and aches and pains are a problem, try over the counter remedies like aspirin.
Because the flu has killed so many youngsters this year already, officials have offered special guidance to parents on discerning when their child’s case may be sufficiently severe to warrant urgent attention. The elderly, individuals with chronic illness, compromised immune systems, or other serious health issues may wish to consult with their physicians if they get the flu. Yes, please, consider still getting that flu shot.
Not so super football
As for the Super Bowl, it not only may be fading into a dim memory — it didn’t register in the public consciousness as much as it normally does, with broadcast ratings for the sports spectacle falling by 7 percent to the lowest watching levels since 2009. Multiple reasons may account for this, including fans’ weariness with seeing the New England Patriots contend yet again, the Philadelphia Eagles being a less than stellar draw, and football’s saturation-overexposure.
But the respected NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in January also found that “the game of football itself facing some real questions coming into 2018 … The number of people following the NFL closely and the number who want their children to play football is declining. Overall, the poll found, the number of people who say they follow the NFL has declined sharply since 2014.”
Fans, the pollsters said, are expressing increasing wariness as to football’s role in contributing to head injuries, especially concussions, that can result in lifetime damage.
As NBC News reported of the poll data:
Overall, 48 percent of those polled in January said they would encourage their child to play a sport other than football out of concussion concerns. Four years ago, only 40 percent said they would do that. That’s an 8-point shift in four years. Among mothers, 53 percent said they would encourage their child to play another sport; that was up from 40 percent in 2014 – and increase of 13 points. With fathers, 39 percent said they would encourage their child to play another sport; that was up from 33 percent in 2014 – a 6-point bump. In other words, fewer adults are watching the game on Sundays and fewer are encouraging their children to take the field.
To be sure, football remains a giant fan favorite, and, even as doctors discuss how to better provide young athletes with an informed consent about the game’s possible harms, more girls and young women are jumping into the game.
In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the huge damage that can be inflicted on them by brain and spinal cord injuries. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has just surveyed parents and reported that, in 2016, 8.3 percent of boys and 5.6 percent of girls ages 3 to17 years ever had suffered a significant head injury in their lifetime. But the percentage of children “who have ever had a significant head injury” increased, peaking at 11.7 percent among children aged 15–17 years.
All parents want their children to be happy, socially well adjusted, and to enjoy their health in fun and games. But we also need to learn lessons from athletics, especially in protecting the young from infection and injury, especially head harms.