An Epidemiologist on ‘Contagion’: This Will Almost Certainly Occur
Despite some disappointments, Contagion hits much more than it misses. The science is uncannily true, with rare exceptions.
SEP 12 2011
When I came of age in medicine — I’m a public health physician, scientist, and student of emerging infectious diseases — infectious disease threats seemed to be on the wane. New vaccines, a seemingly endless stream of new antibiotics, antiviral agents, and improvements in public health and sanitation meant that, at least in the developed world, infectious pathogens were behind us. Medical leaders spoke seriously of the “conquest of infectious diseases.”
It wasn’t long, of course, before that folly was exposed. HIV; a mysterious pneumonia killing American Legion members in Philadelphia; Ebola, Marburg, and Hantaviruses; SARS; anthrax by mail — these and others reminded us not to drop our guard.
Nor did the old diseases ever really go away. The forces that tend to drive the emergence of new diseases — rapid global travel and migration of human and animal populations, a complex and interconnected worldwide food chain, to name only two — have only accelerated.
Contagion hits these points with near-documentary accuracy and precision. Like SARS, the fictional pathogen in the film begins in Asia and travels rapidly by plane to other parts of the world. Effectively intertwining different individual and public health perspectives starting with Gwyneth Paltrow’s opening cough, the film shows us both the worried ill and the worried well in her family members and co-workers.