It isn’t often that public health has a starring role in a big Hollywood movie. But that’s just the case in “Contagion,” a new film that explores the spread and societal impact of a worldwide disease pandemic.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh, “Contagion” follows the rapid global movement of a deadly airborne virus, the public health effort to control its spread and find its source as well as the devastation to everyday life. According to an article published this month in APHA’s newspaper, The Nation’s Health, the film is being compared to one of Soderbergh’s earlier films “Traffic“, which captured the consequences of the illicit drug market through the lens of different characters and separate plot lines.
In crafting the world of “Contagion”, the movie’s creators sought out public health experts to advise on how a pandemic would unfold in the real world and the complexities of a global public health response. For example, unlike many disease outbreak movies in which the culprit is an evil pharmaceutical company or a secret government conspiracy, the fictional virus in “Contagion” is based on a real-world scenario: the clash between zoonotic diseases and human encroachment into formerly wild areas. W. Ian Lipkin, MD, a scientific consultant to the movie and professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, designed the movie’s fictional virus and worked with the film’s screenwriter, Scott Burns, to develop a scientifically plausible storyline. Lipkin told The Nation’s Health that “after watching this film, everyone in public health is going to be a hero…(public health workers) aren’t going to have to explain to their friends and family what it is they do.”
The film’s depiction of the public health response and the difficulty of curbing disease transmission was also informed by real-world scenarios and public health input. Public health author Laurie Garrett, also a scientific consultant to the movie, told The Nation’s Health that it was important to her that the film not reflect misconceptions on the state of pandemic preparedness. For example, she told the newspaper, a pandemic vaccine won’t be ready overnight and if there is a vaccine, there won’t be enough for all those in need.
“The movie should make audiences think of the equity situation,” she told The Nation’s Health. “When we have a disaster, who gets the benefits of science and who makes those decisions?”
“Contagion” screenwriter Scott Burns told the newspaper that while accuracy was important to the script’s development, the movie is still “an act of fiction…it’s not ‘this would happen,’ it’s ‘this could happen.’”
“The whole movie was basically one ‘a-ha’ moment after another for me,” Burns told The Nation’s Health regarding his experiences learning about disease and public health. “I became acutely aware of how there is a shared health of a society.”
A related social action campaign built around the movie will provide audiences with a window into the world of pandemics — their history, the public health workers who have dedicated their lives to studying them and what precautions people can take to protect themselves and their loved ones. Organized by Participant Media and promoted by a range of partners, including APHA, the campaign will immerse visitors into this world through an interactive online experience at TakePart.com/Contagion.
As part of the awareness-raising effort, APHA’s Get Ready campaign is featuring tools and resources about preparing for outbreaks of infectious disease.
For the full “Contagion” article from The Nation’s Health, visit the newspaper online. Contagion opens in theaters Sept. 9.
Trailer courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures