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How realistic is the plot of the movie Contagion about the global spread of a deadly virus?

Toronto, September 8, 2011

By Leslie Shepherd

A lethal airborne virus that kills within days is rapidly spreading around the world.

There is no known treatment and no vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta have hired an international team of doctors to find a cure, but the virus is mutating faster than they can figure it out.

Panic is spreading even faster. In the United States, the National Guard has been called out to maintain order. The president has been moved to a secure location underground.

How realistic is the plot of the movie Contagion, to be released in theatres on Friday?

The first victim, Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) is taken to a hospital in Minneapolis after flying home from a business trip in Hong Kong and feeling unwell. Two days later she is dead. Did she catch the virus on her flight home when an infected person coughed nearby? When she shook hands at her business meeting? When she touched a door handle, a water fountain, a credit card or peanuts in a snack bowl?

Two Canadian researchers are at the forefront of preparing for future global infectious disease outbreaks – like the one depicted in Contagion – by coupling their respective areas of scientific research and technology.

“In an increasingly globalized world, the scenario of a severe pandemic is entirely plausible,” said Dr. Kamran Khan, an infectious disease physician and scientist at St. Michael's Hospital and an associate professor at the University of Toronto. “Pandemics have been occurring throughout history and will inevitably occur again. It would be naïve for us to assume that future pandemics will never be severe.”

Dr. Khan developed Bio.Diaspora, an online technology that analyzes the movements of billions of travelers on commercial flights worldwide as a way to anticipate how infectious diseases will spread. The program, created in response to Toronto’s SARS crisis in 2003, predicted how the H1N1 flu virus would spread around the world.

Following the scenario described in Contagion, Dr. Khan’s team produced an image depicting how an outbreak in the Hong Kong area would most likely spread worldwide if it occurred around U.S. Thanksgiving.

View larger version of map (1.9 MB pdf file)

Dr. Khan works closely with Dr. John Brownstein, an epidemiologist at Children’s Hospital Boston and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Brownstein is co-founder and director of HealthMap, an infectious disease monitoring system that uses the Internet and social media to “listen” for early signals of dangerous outbreaks across the world.

Launched in 2006, the HealthMap system collects, filters, maps and disseminates information about emerging infectious diseases from Web-based data sources including blogs, listservs, chatrooms, online news reports and official alerts and then presents this information in one view to over a million users a year. A mobile version of HealthMap, “Outbreaks Near Me,” has been released for iPhone and Android devices and downloaded more than 150,000 times. In 2009 following the emergence of H1N1, an estimated 1 million people used HealthMap to monitor its activity.

The HealthMap project is a featured resource on the Contagion social action campaign web site, which is aimed at raising awareness about disease transmission and pandemics.

“Being informed and engaged in public health is of utmost importance – not just during an epidemic or pandemic, but at all times,” said Dr. Brownstein. “HealthMap is designed to enable the public to engage at their level of comfort – whether it be searching a location for the latest outbreak information or submitting first-hand information to be included on our map. Either way, it empowers people to become an active participant in the public health dialogue.”

Drs. Khan and Brownstein said they hoped the movie would increase public awareness of the risks of living in an interconnected world, but more importantly, ignite discussion about our responsibilities as global citizens living in such a world.

“When people talk about preparing for pandemics, they tend to focus on ways to respond to these outbreaks once they have already started,” Dr. Khan said. “But it’s important that we look further upstream, and recognize that there are things we can all do to reduce the risks of infectious disease threats emerging in the first place.”

But despite the adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” prevention is a tougher sell.

Drs. Khan and Brownstein highlight the intersection of several phenomena that are likely contributing to the risks of future global infectious disease threats. These include human population growth, a growing link between human health and animal health, global climate change, international air travel, mass gatherings, the emergence of highly drug resistant microbes and gaps in public health capacity in the world.

While individuals may feel overwhelmed by the scale of these factors, awareness of how they are related to infectious diseases can foster collective action that reduces the risk of threats like the one that plays out in Contagion. To learn about the makings of a pandemic and how, as global citizens, we can reduce their risks visit www.biodiaspora.com/pandemic and www.takepart.com/contagion.