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The 'Contagion' question: are we really prepared for a pandemic?

Is the threat of pandemic real in the film Contagion? Yes, writes a Columbia University epidemiologist -- and we're not nearly as prepared for it as we could be.
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Written by Andrew Nusca, Former editor on

The moment I stepped out of the theater after seeing the film Contagion -- a new thriller about the rapid, global outbreak of a flu-like disease spread by both touch and breath -- I thought to myself: "This really isn't so far-fetched."

(It certainly didn't help that the fellow behind me coughed five minutes into the movie. Oh boy.)

The world's brightest minds have spent quite a bit of the 20th century worrying about the threat of bioterrorism -- the concept of a bad actor intentionally weaponizing and/or releasing a biological agent that could decimate the human population.

Despite all our talk of continued nuclear threat (which remains a very real concern), it's clear that bioterrorism is a far easier tool for a rebel group to use -- and far more difficult to contain, since it could harm friend and foe alike.

But who needs to induce a pandemic when nature is already capable of it?

Columbia University epidemiologist W. Ian Lipkin writes in a New York Times op/ed this week that the potential of a global outbreak is "very real," openly hoping that the film helps bring awareness to the fact that even though the threat isn't visible, it's a massive risk in an age when globalization has facilitated international travel and shipping of products, including food.

(Think about it: where did your last purchase from Amazon.com come from? How about that piece of fruit you ate yesterday? And where do you think your old cell phone went after you traded it in?)

It's a daunting challenge for any public health organization or government.

Five points from Lipkin's piece:

  1. The vast majority of emerging infectious diseases start in wildlife and eventually jump to humans.
  2. The virus in Contagion is fake but based on the Nipah virus, which struck Malaysia in the late 1990s, transferring from bats to pigs to humans and killing 100 before it was quarantined.
  3. The first pandemic of the 21st century was SARS in 2003. During a visit to Beijing, Lipkin says the deserted streets, food supply shortages and political instability he saw were just like the movie.
  4. The public health system is under-financed and overwhelmed today. How can it possibly prepare for chaos? Coordination must be achieved, electronic health records must be adopted and other data sources must be monitored to detect an outbreak early.
  5. Like the film, it still takes several months to create and test a new vaccine. That's not good enough to deal with this kind of catastrophe. If a pandemic reached the U.S., we'd only be able to manufacture enough vaccine for a quarter of the population. "Better," of course, is a relative term.

We talk often on SmartPlanet about a resilient city that can deal with catastrophe on a grand scale, often in the context of climate change. But what about one that we can't even see? Which cities are truly prepared for that scenario?

"Pandemics have happened before," Lipkin writes, "and they will happen again."

In a video from July 14, 2009, former CDC director Jeff Koplan weighs in:

The Real Threat of ‘Contagion’ [New York Times]

Photo: Claudette Barius/Warner Bros.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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