By Allison Takeda
Steven Soderbergh's new thriller, Contagion, boasts plenty of big names - Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, and Laurence Fishburne, to name a few - but the real star of the film isn't on the cast list and doesn't speak a single line of dialogue.
In fact, Contagion's main "character" isn't a traditional one at all; rather, it's a lethal flu-like virus that triggers a global panic as it threatens to wipe out millions of people worldwide. Moviegoers have seen similar threats in films like 1995's Outbreak and 2002's 28 Days Later, but this one - which is grounded in science, not science fiction - may be the scariest yet.
Could 'Contagion' Really Happen?
In short, yes.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns went to great lengths to make the movie "ultrarealistic." Operating on the belief that truth is stranger than fiction, they sought advice from various experts and public officials, all of whom, according to Burns, said that a real global pandemic was "not a matter of if, but when."
Soderbergh and Burns' main scientific advisor was Ian Lipkin, MD, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health and a member of the Center for Disease Control's National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee. Dr. Lipkin served as the film's on-set consultant, offering counsel on everything from script rewrites to costume choices to lab protocol. According to The New York Times, he even conceived of the film's virus as a corollary of the real-life Nipah virus that spread among Malaysian pig farmers in the late 1990s. Like the Nipah virus, Contagion's virus goes to the brain and attacks the central nervous system. It spreads from person to person through the respiratory route - for example, via coughs and sneezes - similar to the flu or the SARS virus, which caused a near pandemic in 2002 when it infected people in some 37 countries in a matter of weeks. The United States got by relatively unscathed then, but Lipkin says we may not be so lucky next time.
What Is a Pandemic?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines a pandemic as "the worldwide spread of a new disease," the key words being "worldwide" (spanning multiple continents) and "spread" (meaning the disease is infectious and easily transmitted between humans). Both must be true of a condition in order for it to be considered a pandemic, so cancer, for example, would not qualify, but a new influenza virus might.
It's important to note that mortality is no longer a factor in WHO's definition. Though some pandemics - like the Spanish Flu outbreak, which is thought to have killed more than 40 million people between 1918 and 1919 - are particularly lethal, pandemics themselves are not inherently deadly.
The most recent example of a pandemic is the 2009 H1N1 flu outbreak, which spread quickly via international travelers who carried the virus from Mexico to various other cities. Within a year, more than 200 countries had confirmed cases.
"It's a global world we're living in," Lipkin told Mother Nature Network. The same services and technologies that afford us access to different cultures and people - international trade, air travel, mass transit - can also make us vulnerable to different diseases. "Anything can rapidly travel to another place."
In the film, that includes information. Drawing on inspiration from the SARS frenzy, Soderbergh and Burns show how, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and a 24-hour news cycle, misinformation can be just as damaging to the public as a lethal virus.
"It's not just the disease that you have to track, it's how the disease is interpreted by the population," Burns told ComingSoon.net. "There's a lot of unfiltered content in the world now. It is both a great freedom and a huge danger."
How Can We Prepare for a Real-Life Pandemic?
"Neils Bohr once said, 'It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,'" Lipkin tells Everyday Health. Which is to say, we don't know whether or when a virus is going to be pandemic, so there's only so much we can do in advance. For example, we can't create vaccines for diseases we don't yet know about - but we can change the system we use to manufacture and administer them. And we should, according to Lipkin.
"If we were to have some sort of an outbreak - or pandemic, worse yet - in the United States, we don't at present have the tools that are required to rapidly ramp up some sort of a strategy for making vaccines and distributing them," he told Salon.
"We need to step up our game. It need not take six months to create, test, and begin to distribute a vaccine. We have the technology required to do this in three months. The impediment to doing so is lack of commitment and resources."
On a more individual level, Lipkin says you can protect against infection by maintaining healthy habits and stocking your home with emergency supplies. "Keep your vaccinations up to date, wash your hands frequently, stay home if you are potentially contagious, and store food, water, and batteries sufficient for several days," Lipkin advises. "N95 masks are a good idea as well."
Both he and the filmmakers hope that Contagion will educate as well as entertain, and possibly even serve as a teaching tool for public-health issues. "It's not a documentary," Lipkin told Salon. "But by and large, it is a plausible scenario - and it's also something in the way of a wake-up call."
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