In all my years in public health this is the first crack I’ve taken at being a movie critic- so give me a little slack on this one. I checked out the new movie called Contagion– and really liked it. I won’t give up too much information and spoil the film, but it’s basically a fictional drama that portrays CDC and other public health folks responding to a new disease outbreak that ends up causing a pandemic. While I thought some of the human behavior and public policy decisions in the film were over the top- I was pleasantly surprised that the Director made good efforts to capture the essence of epidemiology, surveillance and disease control, public health interventions, and laboratory science and how they fit together as part of a public health response.
Ok, so you might wonder as you leave the theater- “Could this really happen?” The answer is “yes” and it kind of already has. The 2002-03 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic was remarkably similar to the core of what happens in Contagion. SARS– which was a easily transmitted and had a case-fatality rate of more than 10% – rapidly spread from Hong Kong to 37 countries. Fortunately, a robust international public health response that included effective public health interventions was able to prevent the virus from becoming a devastating global pandemic.
Public health from around the world worked to identify and isolate the virus and good and swift public health interventions were able to limit the spread of the disease. Because of the quick and robust initial public health response it was fully contained – but it won’t ever be eradicated because it could still live in an animal reservoir and spread to people. By the way- civet cats were the likely intermediate host for direct transmission of SARS to humans, but bats, or some other host, are likely the natural reservoir for the virus.
The good news is that you should still be able to sleep after you watch the film because you’re aware that a global, national, state and local public health system is in place that’s designed to quickly identify emerging infectious diseases. Plus, we get better every day at crafting and implementing public health interventions. Here’s a website called Contagion and CDC which was created by the CDC Foundation to help separate fact from fiction and to highlight CDC’s role in preparedness and response… Contagion Movie: Fact and Fiction in the film, a CDC website….and CDC 24/7 – which is a website that includes information you may find useful on how the public health system protects us from outbreaks.
By the way- all the locations in the movie that depict the CDC were all taken on their campus. I recognized their Emergency Operations Center in the movie- and have even been in meetings in the conference room you’ll see in the movie. The lab’s you see are actually the CDC labs too… as are the rooms you see where staff are talking about the outbreak.