From the World Cup to Mecca: Can Big Events Spread Diseases?

PHOTO: Muslim pilgrims wear surgical masks to prevent infection from respiratory virus known as the Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, May, 13, 2014.
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Catching a disease may be the last thing on your mind as people gather for commencement ceremonies, sporting events or religious pilgrimages in the coming months, but they may be sharing more than memories when they come together.

Gatherings that draw people from all over the world will occur in places with diseases such as MERS, dengue fever, measles and mumps, but experts say the risks are quite low.

“We acknowledge that we live in a tight little world with people traveling,” said Dr. William Schaffner, who chairs preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. “Think about how many graduation events take place every spring, all kinds of congregations that occur. We don’t see outbreaks of communicable diseases following those because we are generally a well-protected population. In addition, we have a very knowledgeable and responsive public health system.”

Pilgrimage to Mecca

Saudi Arabian officials have already raised the alarm on the country’s potential to spread the MERS virus during Islam’s annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in the fall.

Health officials have been concerned about meningitis spreading in pilgrimages past, which has led to special precautions, Schaffner said. Though MERS, or Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome, has no known cure, Schaffner said teams are on hand and prepared to handle potential infections.

Click here to find out how you can protect yourself from MERS.

MERS is fatal to one in three people who contract it, but it doesn’t spread as readily as its cousin, the SARS virus, which infected 8,098 people from November 2002 through July 2003, and killed 774 of them. However, health care workers and those in close contact with MERS patients have been more susceptible to it, according to the World Health Organization.

PHOTO: Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islams holiest shrine, the Kaaba, in the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca under the heavy rain in Saudi Arabia on May 8, 2014.
Halis Akyildiz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
PHOTO: Muslim pilgrims circle counterclockwise Islam's holiest shrine, the Kaaba, in the Grand Mosque in the Muslim holy city of Mecca under the heavy rain in Saudi Arabia on May 8, 2014.

Since April 2012, WHO has reported 536 laboratory confirmed cases of MERS in more than a dozen countries. But between late March and early May, Saudi Arabia has reported 290 new cases.

Two cases were reported in the United States this month in people who had recently traveled to Saudi Arabia, but the virus seems not to have spread.

Read more about the U.S. MERS cases here.

World Cup

Everyone seems to have soccer fever during the World Cup, but researchers in Spain, Brazil and the United Kingdom suspect there’s a chance spectators traveling to some Brazilian cities this June and July could also catch dengue fever.

People are infected by mosquitoes then travel back home, "and then local mosquitoes can pick it up,” Schaffner said. “It happens remarkably infrequently, but that is how dengue has been imported into south Florida from the Caribbean.”

PHOTO: Icelands team celebrates after the FIFA World Cup 2014 group E qualifying football match between Norway and Iceland in Oslo, Norway, October 15, 2013.
AAS ERLEND/AFP/Getty Images
PHOTO: Icelands team celebrates after the FIFA World Cup 2014 group E qualifying football match between Norway and Iceland in Oslo, Norway, October 15, 2013.

Dengue fever, which is transmitted through mosquito bites, is one of the leading causes of illness and death in the tropics, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its symptoms can include difficulty breathing, bloody gums and vomiting blood.

It may take three weeks to transmit the virus from a sick human to a mosquito to another human, but researchers wondered whether the climate forecast coupled with the influx of more than a million soccer fans to Brazil could foster the spread of infection, according to their study published Friday in the British medical journal The Lancet.

The researchers set out to identify Brazilian cities that needed to control their mosquito population in advance of the tournament. They identified three cities at higher risk for having epidemic dengue fever at the start of the games in June.

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