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The Strange Tale of the Norovirus Bug in London

Robin Copland
© Juan Gaertner /

Something interesting happened at the Athletics World Championships last week.  Well, actually and to be fair, lots of interesting things happened

  • Mo Farah kept up his astonishing record by winning the Gold Medal in the 10000 metres. Sadly for him, he had to make do with a Silver in the 5000 metres race.
  • Time finally caught up with Usain Bolt as he could only manage a Bronze Medal in the 100 metres and injury in the 4 x 100 metres relay during his last race.
  • Justin Gatlin, who has been banned not once, but twice for using performance-enhancing drugs, won the 100 metre Gold Medal.
  • 30 athletes and support staff fell victim to a suspected outbreak of norovirus.

Norovirus is the most common cause of viral gastroenteritis in humans.  It is transmitted by fecally-contaminated food or water, by person-to-person contact or by touching contaminated surfaces after an infected person comes into contact with it, or coughs/ sneezes nearby. In industrialised countries, 64000 people a year are hospitalised and over 900000 people are ill enough that they have to attend hospital as an outpatient.  Worldwide, it is associated with an estimated 218,000 deaths.  That’s quite a big number and given the number of visitors to London from third-world countries, it was surely important that Public Health England took a firm and unwavering line on the isolation of suspected victims – potential medal winners or otherwise.

So, all of that said, we had unedifying sight on our TV screens in the UK of various retired athletes, among them Denise Lewis, Paula Radcliffe and the incomparable Michael Johnson, together with the programme presenter, Gabby Logan, pursuing quite the most feeble, ill-informed and pathetic line of questioning I think I have ever seen.  Basically, the point of their questions to a Public Health England doctor was that the Botswanan 400 metre runner, Isaac Makwala had been unfairly quarantined (thus missing his final) and didn’t she (the doctor) know just how much blood, sweat and tears he had spilled in his efforts to become a great athlete?

The good doctor, who to be fair, withstood the barrage of hostile questioning with good grace, calmly pointed out that that was not the point!  The point was that she had a responsibility to everyone else with whom Makwala came in contact.  She was responsible for attempting to limit the spread of the virus.  Back the four of them came at her with more and more frantic and leading questions that even I, as a complete layperson, knew were loaded, silly and arrant nonsense.  At one point, Paula Radcliffe asked why blood tests could not have been done to confirm quickly whether or not he had the virus.  The doctor calmly and quietly pointed out that blood tests are irrelevant and could not have confirmed either way whether he had or had not contracted the virus.  The simple fact of the matter is that no test can identify the presence of the virus until 48 hours have elapsed.  Eventually, Michael Johnson took the hint and tried to move the line of questioning onto poor communication.

It turns out that Makwala did not have the virus.  So what?  He displayed all the classic symptoms; he was staying in the affected hotel; he had been in contact with people who had the virus.  No one has criticised him for then breaking the embargo and turning up at the warm up track before his 400 metre heat.  If it transpired that he actually did have the virus, surely that action was misguided and reckless at best?

There are a number of lessons to be learned

  • Stick to what you are good at!
  • The BBC needs to ensure that properly qualified journalists ask well-researched questions of the expert witness rather than have four laypeople try to attack the wrong person about something they know nothing about.

And then for negotiators

  • If you are seeking out information from the other side, prepare well-phrased and turned questions
  • Avoid leading questions

And finally, sometimes bad things happen.  Get used to it and get over it. 

There are times when no matter the costs – financial or otherwise, a firm line has to be drawn in the sand and a principled stand taken.  This was one of those times.

Robin Copland
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