Statement by Minister for Health – SARS Briefing
I have received advice and recommendations today from the SARS Expert Group concerning arrangements for delegates coming from WHO-designated affected areas for the Special Olympics Game in June.
The Special Olympics World Games are a unique event for this country, and in the context of the SARS outbreak, have accordingly been given extra scrutiny due to the large numbers of people involved in travelling and arriving here In Ireland. In addition, the communal nature of the Games over a period of weeks makes it very distinctive and merits the utmost caution in assessing public healthcare implications.
The SARS Expert Group, led by Dr Jim Kiely, the Chief Medical Officer, have been considering the relevant issues over the past few weeks, concluding with a 2 hour meeting yesterday. As part of their deliberations, they received technical advice from Dr Richard Pebody of the World Health Organisation.
At the outset, the Expert Group set a number of priority objectives against which to measure their decisions.
#1 The preservation of the low-level of incidence of SARS cases in Ireland to date. As of today, we have had just one case of probable SARS, which occurred over 7 weeks ago. Only one other country has a reported case earlier than that. So the measures and practices we´ve undertaken are working and are effective. We intend to continue those strong measures in dealing with suspect or probable cases, if or when they arise.
#2 Maintenance of the highest level of Public Health in Ireland. This is a primary concern for any government in managing the health of its population.
#3 Minimising the risk of the introduction of SARS into Ireland. Our strategy to date has been about monitoring and informing travelling passengers about SARS, as well as putting in place the necessary resources and facilities to deal with cases that could arise from randomly arriving passengers from currently-designated affected areas.
#4 Protection of athletes and delegates from SARS infected areas. Clearly there is a responsibility on us as the host country to assess and minimise the risk for these delegates and to provide the best protection advice and facilities.
#5 Protection of athletes and delegates from other participating countries. We have a duty of care to all of the athletes and delegates attending the Games.
#6 The maintenance of the integrity of the Special Olympics games. We want to ensure the participation of the highest number of delegates possible. We want to create the most conducive atmosphere for the competitors to excel at their individual or team sports, without having undue or unnecessary concerns about their health. And to lessen the pressure of being under intense public and media focus.
Those were the objectives.
The Group´s final recommendation was based on them considering a number of key questions and options:
- Would existing measures here be sufficient?
- How effective would quarantining at port of exit be?
- How effective would quarantining and screening be in Ireland?
- Considering these questions, what´s the best solution?
Regrettably, having considered these options, the Expert Group´s recommendation is to request that certain delegations be asked not to attend the Games. The countries would be those who, at the operative time, are on the WHO list of areas with recent local transmission. The operative date for the WHO list would be 10 days prior to the normal arrival of such countries before the official start of the Games.
Clearly, having asked an Expert Group of professionals to assess and make a recommendation, it would be wrong to ignore their advice and medical knowledge.
I have considered the decision at length and discussed it with the Taoiseach who has informed the Tanaiste. They are in agreement with me that the best course of action is to follow through on the Expert Group´s recommendation.
It is unfortunate that this decision had to be made.
I know that the Special Olympics Committee have put a lot of hard work, time and effort into organising these Games. So, too, have all of the host towns and local communities, particularly those who were due to host the affected countries. I have spoken earlier today with the Mary Davis, Chief Executive of the Committee and we recognise it is a difficult situation for them given the arrangements they have already put in place.
I have also spoken this afternoon with Tim Shriver of Special Olympics International. I have agreed to facilitate further discussions and oral submissions from them to be assessed by the Expert Group.
The Dept of Foreign Affairs has spoken this afternoon with ambassadors of countries who may be affected by this decision.
I say “may” because, as we have already seen, the WHO status of some countries may change as we get nearer the date of the Games, and we will want to give them every opportunity we can to participate.
However, for the moment, SARS is still a threat to global health.
It remains an unknown quantity.
And it can have deadly consequences.
Because it is still random.
Still uncertain where it will emerge. And limited options exist to prevent it from spreading to or entering our country.
But on this occasion we do have a choice. And we´ve made that choice.
It´s an informed choice that allows us to best meet and sustain the Expert Group´s objectives.
It´s a hard choice, but one that is in the best interests of the wider community and public health. Nonetheless, we acknowledge it’s tough on a small number of people.
Let´s not forget the bigger picture here. In 3-4 weeks, over 6,500 delegates will be arriving in Ireland to participate in what promises to be the event of a lifetime for many of the athletes and their coaches, friends and families.
All of them have preparing and training for many months in advance. We hope that they´ll be able to come here and put that training into action and see their hard work translate into something special. And that Ireland and the world will enjoy a spectacle that will live long in people´s memories.