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'Contagion' Outbreak Could Happen, Says Centers For Disease Control! How To Prepare!

Fri, September 9, 2011 2:48pm EDT by Chloe Melas Add first Comment

The film — about a deadly pandemic that sweeps the world killing millions — is leaving people wondering, ‘could this really happen’? As it turns out, we could find ourselves in this exact situation any day.

Hand sanitizer companies are going to be thanking Contagion director Steven Soderbergh after this weekend. attended the NYC premiere of the film and it left us terrified. Could all this worrying about how to prevent natural disasters and terrorist attacks have been the least of our concerns? We spoke to the Centers for Disease Control’s Senior Advisor on Crisis Communication Dr. Barbara Reynolds, who says that those of you who dismiss this film as a simple thriller flick are wrong.

“I know it’s pretty surprising but yes this could happen,” Dr. Reynolds tells us. “I think it’s important for people to recognize there’s a threat out there. Not only can it happen, but in different degrees it already has happened. We at the CDC continue to be out in the world looking for the next potential deadly virus.”

The film follows the individual lives of six people — played by Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Jude Law, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet and Laurence Fishburne — as they go to great lengths to survive a disease that is rapidly spreading around the world. It’s eventually discovered that the quickly mutating disease was transferred from a bat to a pig then to a human.

“I can tell you that based on what I know, the film unfolds in a realistic way,” Dr. Reynolds says. “It captures the true struggle that would take place if a real deadly virus were to emerge. CDC has people out every week looking for health threats. It’s a scary movie in that regard but people should be reassured that we’re there for them.”

But could a disease break out and rapidly spread across the globe, killing millions within days? Dr. Reynolds reminds us of the Influenza Outbreak of 1918, also known as the Spanish flu. In this influenza pandemic, most victims were healthy, young adults and it killed between 50 and 100 million people. It’s considered to be one of the deadliest natural disasters in history.

“I was in Hong Kong when H5N1 broke out [in 1997],” Dr. Reynolds tells us. “This was a pretty deadly virus, but it hadn’t mutated. When we are looking at viruses, we look at how deadly they are and also we have to look at how easily they transmit. It’s that combination that can turn a virus into a real killer. The most dramatic example of a pandemic would be the 1918 influenza. It killed over 50 million people in the world. With that illness people would get up in the morning and not feel really good and be dead before they got home that night.”

In the movie, epidemiologists at the CDC were working around the clock to find a cure. After testing monkeys and various other specimens, a cure is found. But it takes at least a year for everyone to receive the vaccine.

“We are hoping this movie doesn’t cause hysteria but we hope it shows viruses can kill. Diseases do happen and the CDC is there 24/7.”

Just this last week, the CDC reported two new cases of influenza.

“We found strains of pig, bird and human virus we are monitoring that always have the possibility of turning into something like Contagion,” Dr. Reynolds says. “We detected it through a very strong health care system. Two individuals were suffering from influenza, and lab tests say it’s a different kind of strain. We put out health alerts to our health care providers and we shared that information internationally.”


Who gets the vaccine first?

  • “As CDC was planning for a potential pandemic of influenza, we knew we couldn’t develop a vaccine to help everyone at first. So we put the question out there to the public and did public engagement meetings. We laid out the hypothetical situation: a deadly virus and limited amount of vaccines. People recognized that some people need it first and the ones that we put into our recommendations were: health care workers first. This is because we want the people who can help us get it first. Certain positions in our society need to be protected like utility workers. These people that keep our electricity running, etc. Then those that are most susceptible. I can’t say for sure how it would go. But I would say decisions would need to be made. When we create a vaccine we share it across the states, and local decision could be made too. We give guidance as to how the vaccine could be distributed.”

What should you do if this happens to you and how do you prevent things like this from happening?

  • “The first thing we would ask you to do is distance yourself from each other. We’d ask you to be very vigilant about washing hands and not touching your eyes, nose and mouth. If you did become sick you’d need to stay home. We don’t want people to become obsessive, but you should get vaccinated. 36,000 Americans die from influenza in a regular season. Protect your health, exercise, eat well, get sleep.”

Could you really wait almost a year to get a vaccine for a virus that’s killing millions?

  • “It’s tragic isn’t it? To see how vulnerable we can be. We have good science, vaccines can be developed, we are on the cusp of making them quicker and more easily. We are using some technology that is half a century old! Science wants to move as quickly as possible. Look at HIV, how long has it been affecting humans? We still don’t have a better vaccine. For the influenza virus, it takes about six months for us to develop and mass produce a vaccine.”

— Chloe Melas


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