Going to the movies is a time-honored way of getting away from the vagaries of work and home life and inhabiting a different and exotic place. I don’t know if car mechanics can really enjoy chase movies or cowboys can appreciate Westerns, but as a specialist in Infectious Diseases, I rarely get a chance to see someone plying my trade inside the multiplex. There are spoilers ahead, so read on cautiously if you have not yet seen Contagion and plan to go.
The new Steven Soderbergh movie, Contagion, is a fairly realistic guesstimate of what might happen if a highly contagious, new infectious agent started moving around the world and destroying people willy nilly like a marauding tornado. While there has never been an infection quite like “MEV-1” as depicted in Contagion, the question of how we would respond as a medical community and as a society is a worthy one to address. Whether the answer is right or wrong – well, let’s hope we never find out.
From an Infectious Diseases angle, the infection in Contagion is crafted to be highly transmissible and fatal. This would be like a hybrid of the 1918-1919 pandemic flu, Nipah virus and SARS. The end of the movie shows the mechanism via which MEV-1 began to infect humans, and it is highly reminiscent of Nipah and SARS. Thus has some built-in credibility as it builds on diseases that we already understand. It is also eerily reminiscent of the most recent big flu outbreak (A/California/2009 H1N1) where the virus contained elements that came from birds, pigs and people. The rapidity of spread lends the movie much of its terror, but is not far off the rapidity of spread of influenza. Similarly, the incubation period and time to death is also reminiscent of the 1918-1919 pandemic flu. So the film-makers have done their homework and created a plausible disaster scenario. More