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GERM OF AN IDEA Fishburne and Winslet discuss viable containment strategies.

How realistic is Contagion?

Loyola University Medical Center’s infectious-disease expert diagnoses the plausibility of Steven Soderbergh’s disease-disaster film.


When the producers of Contagion, Steven Soderbergh’s disaster-by-germs thriller shot partially in and around Chicago, needed to borrow books as set dressing, they called Dr. Jorge Parada. The director of infection prevention and control at Loyola University Medical Center had just the right library, stocked with page-turners like Topley and Wilson’s Principles of Bacteriology, Virology and Immunity. In September, when Contagion opened, we attended a screening with the doc and got his professional opinion on its scientific plausibility.

In the film A deadly, unknown virus rapidly spreads across the globe.
In reality
“That a naturally produced, mutant virus can appear among a hugely susceptible population, get transmitted around the world quickly and have a high lethality can happen. We saw it happen on a smaller scale with SARS [in 2002–03]. And the H1N1 2009 swine flu pandemic showed our astounding ability to identify a novel virus, gear up vaccine production and get it out. We dodged a bullet because H1N1 turned out to be a wimpy virus.”

In the film The virus turns healthy people into convulsing, frothing-at-the-mouth zombies in just a few days.
In reality
“That makes for good cinema, but there are not a lot of bugs that have such a short incubation period. Most bugs need to cook for a little while for you to get sick enough that you have enough virus and it’s in your bloodstream and you’re coughing it out.”

In the film The mortality rate among the infected is around 20 percent.
In reality
“That’s one thing that sets Contagion apart from Outbreak and other films in which a disease has a 100 percent mortality rate. It is very, very uncommon that a disease is so lethal that everyone who catches it dies. Even the devastating 1918 flu pandemic that killed an estimated 20 to 40 million people had a mortality rate only as high as around 20 percent.”

In the film Illinois’s governor shuts down the airports before the quarantine of Chicago.
In reality
“That absolutely is a possibility. An airport is a great way to spread infection across the whole world. If a terrorist sprays something in a busy area in O’Hare that 100 people can catch, those people could be going to San Francisco, Georgia, London, Japan, everywhere—and there’s the seed of your pandemic.”

In the film Kate Winslet’s CDC detective risks her life, exposing herself to infected people to track the virus.
In reality
“There are people like that. Carlo Urbani, the World Health Organization official working in Vietnam, blew the whistle on SARS after noticing a cluster of patients getting a deadly respiratory illness. A month later [in March 2003], he came down with SARS and died.”

In the film As people start dropping like flies, society breaks down: Stores get looted; absenteeism spikes in police and fire departments.
In reality
“This is to be expected. You get a bad, lethal pandemic, why is the fireman going to show up for work? I remember during H1N1, we were trying to think about how we could keep the hospital running. What are we going to do if nurses don’t show up to work? In Chicago, there are plans for emergency response that include shutting down all the exits on the main highways so the Centers for Disease Control and army convoys can get in and out—but you can’t.”

Contagion comes to VOD, DVD and Blu-ray Tuesday 3.

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