Blockbuster movie aims to spread fear of pandemic

Disaster film 'Contagion' has been praised for its frightening portrayal of a virulent disease outbreak. Scientists warn that this fictional horror is a real life threat.

Every minute, each of us will touch our face three to five times. On top of that, we're touching door handles and money, shaking hands and preparing food. In our daily lives, contact with other people – and their germs – is impossible to avoid.

It is this reality that Contagion takes as its terrifying starting point. The movie depicts the uncontrollable spread of a deadly virus as it kills millions and creates terror across the globe.

With its all-star cast, dramatic soundtrack and scenes of apocalyptic devastation, Contagion is much like any other disaster movie. Unlike most, though, its purpose is to educate as well as entertain. Its creators hope to show audiences how to protect themselves from the possible threat of a real pandemic sometime in the future.

They say we have reason to be worried. Over the past 20 years, the spread of viruses like Avian Flu or Swine Flu has caused thousands of deaths worldwide. Back in 1918, an outbreak of Spanish Flu infected one fifth of the world's population, and killed more people than the First World War.

Pandemics like these often occur when a virus that affects animals mutates, creating a new strain that can be passed on to humans. Some of these are relatively mild. Swine Flu, for example, infected up to 81 million people, but killed only 18,000 – half the number of people that die from seasonal flu in the USA every year.

Other diseases, however, are more deadly. Since 2003, Avian Flu has infected 565 people and killed 331. With a mortality rate of nearly 60%, a pandemic on the scale of Swine Flu would have truly devastating consequences. And, with new warnings about the virus emerging all the time, the threat is not about to go away.

A public service?

Of all disaster scenarios, pandemics are uniquely terrifying: lurking unseen in any surface or person, they can only be fought with total isolation. By scaring people with a terrifying worst-case scenario, many argue, Contagion doesn't breed good diligence, but a paralysing and pointless fear of something we cannot, in reality, do anything about.

The makers, of the film, however, argue that the threat of pandemics is real – and undervalued. While alien invasions, terror attacks or asteroids are staples for on-screen scares, a tiny virus is much more likely to destroy humanity. Anything that helps draw attention to this genuine potential threat, and what we can do about it, they say, is valuable.

You Decide

  1. Is a pandemic the biggest genuine threat to human survival?
  2. Do films have a duty to educate as well as entertain?

Activities

  1. Design your own public health campaign, encouraging people to be more careful about the spread of germs. Do you think fear tactics will be the most effective way of influencing behaviour?
  2. Research an illness that has created a widespread outbreak in previous years. Present a pitch on the disease to the class, including how it is likely to spread, and what steps you should take to prevent it.

Some People Say...

“This is just a way to try to sell movie tickets.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How real is the threat of pandemic?
It depends on the estimates, but many think it's a genuine threat. Experts say that we 'dodged a bullet' with Swine Flu: the disease spread remarkably far and fast, but was mild. If it had been more deadly, we could have been in big trouble.
What is the status of Avian Flu now?
At present, it seems like all of the people who contracted Avian Flu got it directly from birds. This means that although it can affect humans, it hasn't yet mutated to be spread from person to person. The biggest worry now is that the disease could be reach this status, and create a global pandemic.
If a global pandemic were to happen, what would we do?
Often, when a pandemic breaks out, there's no existing cure or vaccine, so scientists would have to work on this straight away. Aside from that, there's often very little that can be done apart from minimising contact with others.

Word Watch

Pandemic
A disease that spreads across a widespread area, over countries, or even continents.
Avian Flu
Otherwise known as Bird Flu, usually caused by the H5N1 virus. The illness, which creates flu-like symptoms, has been spreading in Asia since 2003, but arrived in Europe in 2005.
Spanish Flu
A strain of flu similar to Swine Flu, which broke out just after the First World War, killing around 50million people.
Mutates
Changes its DNA. Mutations to the genetic code of a virus happen all the time and can change the way it operates, making it more lethal or more contagious.

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