As officials prepare for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, which are set to start on February 9, they are also preparing for an influx of the flu virus. As CNN reports, both North and South Korea are reporting flu outbreaks just days before the Olympic opening ceremony.
According to a report released Friday from the World Health Organization, North Korea reported 81,640 confirmed cases of the H1N1 strain of the flu between December 1 and January 16. There have also been four deaths as a result of this season’s flu: three children under the age of five and one adult. That number of reported cases is significant, much higher than the 1,250 confirmed cases of flu viruses (both the A and B strain) South Korea reported between December 4 and January 28.
South Korea also reported a high number of people seeking medical treatment for flu-like symptoms in recent weeks. Between January 14 and January 20, 60 percent of people who visited health care clinics did so due to flu-like symptoms. The week prior, the same was true of 69 percent of people seeking medical treatment.
With the amount of travel associated with the impending Olympic games, there is some concern that the flu will continue to spread. “Influenza may only be starting up naturally in South Korea,” infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Dr. William Schaffner told CNN, “but it is possible that some people traveling from North Korea could augment that by bringing the virus with them.”
Additionally, South Korea is currently still working to eradicate the avian flu. As CNN reports, South Korean officials have identified a “highly pathogenic strain of H5N6 avian influenza.” This current outbreak of the avian flu has been limited to birds (both wild and those on poultry farms), but it has been the cause of death in nearly two million chickens since November.
There have been 16 identified human cases of the H5N6 strain since 2014, which resulted in six deaths. However, each of those cases took places in China.
“Most of these illnesses occur among people who have close contact with poultry,” Schaffner told CNN, clarifying that spread of the bird flu is most common among farmers and other people who have regular, prolonged exposure to potentially infected birds.
This particular flu season has been extra nasty worldwide. Recently, the Center for Disease Control announced that the flu has reached almost epidemic levels in the United States. This is in part due to the specific flu strain spreading across the country. As Vox reports, over 80 percent of reported flu cases this season have involved the H3N2 strain. This strain is difficult to prevent, in part because of its resistance to the flu shot. However, getting the flu shot is still incredibly important, in large part due to herd immunity and helping benefit those unable to get vaccinated for age or medical reasons.
So, what can you do to prevent the flu? The easiest way to avoid getting sick is to simply wash your hands. Really. The CDC lists washing your hands as one of the best ways to avoid the spread of infectious disease and viruses like the flu. Additionally, if you think you’re starting to get sick, the smartest thing to do is stay home. Not only will you give yourself the time and space to relax and let your body rest, you’ll also be helping to save those around you from your nasty, nasty flu germs. Sick days exist for a reason, after all.
Unfortunately, there really isn’t such a thing as “sick days” for Olympic athletes looking to compete in February. Here’s hoping everyone stays healthy and keeps the flu at bay.