What is WHO's role in mass gatherings?

Online Q&A
June 2016

What is a mass gathering?

A mass gathering is a planned or spontaneous event where the number of people attending could strain the planning and response resources of the community or country hosting the event. The Olympic Games, The Hajj, and other major sporting, religious, and cultural events are all examples of a mass gathering.

Mass gatherings may stretch health systems beyond their capacity; however, these events also present opportunities for long-lasting positive effects such as a stronger public health systems after the event, or residents and visitors that are better informed about how they can protect themselves from certain diseases.

What is WHO’s role in mass gatherings?

WHO provides advice and technical support to host governments preparing for mass gathering events.

The goal is to make large international events as safe as possible from public health risks and to encourage a positive public health legacy from these events. This includes lessons learnt for future mass gathering events and an improved health system in the host country.

For example, WHO, PAHO and Public Health England, WHO Collaborating Centre in Mass Gatherings and Global Health Security, have been providing expertise to the government of Brazil on planning for mass gatherings since 2012, including the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Rio 2016 Games.

What kind of mass gatherings is WHO working on?

WHO has provided public health assessments, guidance and advice for a range of cultural, religious and sports mass gatherings.

For example, the WHO Office for the European Region provided advice and technical support to WHO Member States that hosted the London 2012 Olympic Games, the 2012 UEFA European Football Championships in Poland and Ukraine and the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian Federation.

WHO has also provided advice and technical support to Saudi Arabia for The Hajj, in particular with respect to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). The Hajj is the largest annual recurring mass gathering event, which attracts roughly 10 million people from more than 180 countries across the globe.

How does WHO provide support to Member States for mass gatherings?

To provide advice and technical support to Member States that are hosting mass gatherings, WHO draws on 5 WHO Collaborating Centres for Mass Gatherings and a Virtual Interdisciplinary Advisory Group (VIAG). VIAG is an informal network of mass gathering experts. Their role is to share expertise on public health requirements and best practices with any organization considering hosting a mass gathering event.

Activities to support host governments of mass gatherings often include:

  • Prior to the event: all-hazard risk assessment, travel medicine and activities to encourage increased physical activity, cessation of tobacco use and avoidance of excess alcohol.
  • During the event: international monitoring of potential disease spread and risk assessment, emergency medical services and hospitals and plans to manage fan zones.
  • After the event: capture lessons learnt and share expertise with future mass gathering hosts.

For example, for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa, WHO and other organizations helped the Department of Health of South Africa to design the reporting and oversight methodology for establishing health operations centres at the national and provincial level.

What governs WHO’s work on mass gatherings?

WHO’s work on mass gatherings was strengthened by a 2011 decision of the WHO Executive Board and the International Health Regulations (2005).

The decision states that the WHO "Director-General should, where appropriate, work closely with Member States that are planning and conducting mass gatherings to support cooperation and communication between the concerned health authorities in each country, and help Member States strengthen capacities to better utilize the International Health Regulations (2005)".

The International Health Regulations (2005) mandate that, "WHO works with Member States to develop the necessary policies, measures and instruments for managing the potential public health risks associated with mass gathering events."

Does WHO have the power to cancel or move mass gatherings?

The decision to cancel, restrict, modify or proceed with any mass gathering event can only be made based on an event - and country-specific risk assessment conducted by the organizers of the event.

WHO may provide advice and technical guidance to host countries on public health risks, but has no decision power to uphold, cancel or postpone mass gatherings hosted by Member States.

  • WHO relies on the expertise of over 700 WHO Collaborating Centres around the world, in particular 5 WHO Collaborating Centres for Mass Gatherings, and thousands of the most knowledgeable experts in science, medicine and public health.
  • VIAG is an informal network of mass gathering experts. Their role is to help, on behalf of WHO, any organization considering hosting a mass gathering event so that they are aware of public health requirements and best practice.