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Saturday 19 October 2019

'Unique health risk' - crowds at papal mass run risk of infectious diseases

  • Measles outbreak a concern at gathering of 500,000 - HSE

  • Health experts say visit poses a unique health risk
  • 500,000 expected to attend Phoenix Park
  • Attendees urged to ensure vaccines are up to date
  • Measures in place for temporary morgues due to age profile of attendees
Pope Francis
Pope Francis

Niamh Cahill

Worshippers attending the Phoenix Park for the Pope's visit run the risk of contracting infectious diseases, health experts have warned.

Temporary morgues are already planned for the event over fears that a small percentage of the 500,000 crowd will die from natural causes, given the age profile of the attendees.

Now the HSE's Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) has said that preparations for the papal visit need to be more than just a "wing and a prayer".

Dr Mary O'Riordan, Specialist in Public Health Medicine at the HPSC, said mass gatherings of this nature pose "unique health risks to attendants" and public health resources.

Dr O'Riordan said a 2016 review found disease outbreaks following mass gatherings are rare outside of the Islamic Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages. But outbreaks have occurred at Muslim, Christian and Hindu events, at sports events, and at large open air festivals in the past.

"When they occur, they most commonly involve vaccine -preventable diseases such as measles, influenza, mumps and hepatitis. Other reported outbreaks are mainly of gastrointestinal infections caused by a number of different pathogens," Dr O'Riordan said.

"Given the nature of this historic papal visit, a large number of young children and elderly visitors are expected to attend the final Mass, including many international visitors.

"In the current context of ongoing measles spread in Europe, it is highly advisable that all attendants, especially young children, ensure that they are up to date with their vaccinations," Dr O'Riordan added.

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, the measles outbreak is continuing across Europe with more than 30 deaths reported in 2018.

The papal visit is expected to attract 15,000 overseas visitors and the final Mass of the visit will draw a crowd of around 500,000 people.


The World Health Organisation defines a mass gathering as "a planned or spontaneous event where the number of people attending is sufficient to strain the planning and response resources of the community, state or nation hosting the event".

Dr Jack Lambert, specialist in infectious diseases at the Mater Hospital, Dublin, said the reality was people risk contracting diseases during mass gatherings.

"There are real outbreaks, as with the Hajj in Saudi Arabia in the past…but most of the population in Ireland are protected against diseases like measles," Dr Lambert said.

"But, in saying that, if one person with measles is walking around 15,000 people and coughs, some individuals might get it."

He cautioned, however, that while infectious disease spread was not impossible during an event such as the papal visit, it was "highly unlikely" and the risk was "minimal".

Pope Francis will attend the 'Festival of Families' in Croke Park on August 25 and a final Mass in Phoenix Park on August 26. A significant policing plan has been put in place for the event while major traffic diversions are also in place.

Irish Rail will also provide capacity for up to 250,000 journeys for those travelling for the papal Mass.

Irish Independent

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