‘Contagion’ echoes the reality of public health outbreaks

Panelists discuss public health outbreaks on-campus and worldwide during a discussion at Northwestern University.

Anyone who sees the Hollywood thriller “Contagion” may be a little on edge. In the film an unknown pathogen moves from Hong Kong to Chicago before globetrotting in a ruthless killing spree. The medical community struggles to contain it and find a cure as the world panics, falling into chaos.

Could an epidemic like “Contagion” really happen?

“Not only could it happen it already has,” said Maryn McKenna, a journalist and author specializing in infectious disease and public health.

The author of Superbug, a book about drug-resistant staph, led a discussion at Northwestern University about “Contagion” and how the government handles health outbreaks.

She said the film parallels the spread of the Nipah virus that swept Malaysia in 1999, which spread from bats to pigs to humans. Handshaking, kissing and dice-rolling all play a role in spreading the virus documented in the film. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention try to get a handle on the health panic, a blogger pushes a holistic cure.

“All of this, remarkably, is a realistic scenario,” McKenna said.

H5N1 bird flu was predicted to be like the disease in “Contagion.” Bird flu has a mortality rate that can reach 90 to 100 percent, often within 48 hours, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The autism and MMR vaccine scare caused many parents to hold off on vaccinating their kids and opt for a more holistic approach to medicine. This shift in practice led to an outbreak of measles.

Or how about the SARS outbreak of 2003? SARS infected thousands of people around the world before the World Health Organization could contain it.

The film paralleled many of these moments in infectious disease history. Screenwriters even threw in a couple public health jokes: They made the Minnesota Department of Health look like idiots even though they’re one of the country’s top health departments.

To create “Contagion”, actors went to the CDC to learn about public health outbreaks. Actual scientists also vetted the science in the film.

“The only thing that’s wrong is it’s really too positive,” McKenna said. “We’re not in as good of shape as the government says we are.”

“Contagion” happens over a period of a few months, when in reality it takes at least nine months to get a vaccine. McKenna said the government needs additional people and technology to move forward in preventing public health outbreaks. Most flu vaccines still use 50-year-old technology.

When the CDC gets budget cuts, the cuts trickle down to state and local health departments. If a department isn’t testing for a disease during an outbreak because they can’t afford to, then there’s no way to determine where the disease has gone.

McKenna said new diseases emerge almost every year. Just last week researchers discovered a new Ebola-like virus, Lloviu virus, in bats from northern Spain.

The U.S. health care system received an overall performance score of 64 out of 100 for 2010 in a report released Tuesday by the Commonwealth Fund. The failing grade, says McKenna, speaks to larger gaps in preparedness.

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