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How Accurate is 'Contagion' to Reality?


"...pandemics are never everywhere."

There's something thrilling about movies with scenarios that could happen -- especially those that lead to the demise of humanity. "Contagion", for example, topped $22.4 million and took the number one spot at the box-office this weekend. But how realistic is the movie that depicts what life would be like in a disease pandemic, especially in a time when the threat of viral warfare seems more of a reality?

Like many sci-fi movies, the makers have done their homework. This one, the New York Times and Wired write, went to unprecedented lengths to ensure as much accuracy for their fictional virus (for this, they contacted real virologists) and disease spread (for this, they contacted real epidemiologists). But to the reviewers, Hollywood drama still trumped much of the reality.

The general sentiment: while it could happen, it's not going to happen quite like this.

The basic premise is that MEV-1 virus -- a fictional virus modeled off of the symptoms of the Nipah virus that causes respiratory illness and is 50 to 75 percent fatal -- is highly contagious and leads to a worldwide pandemic, mass panic and and attempt to control and find a cure. The Times has more in a review by Abigail Zuge, who is an M.D.

First off, Zuge, says the speed with which the disease spread is unlikely.

The real horror of most disease is that it all moves so slowly, leaving everyone involved all too much time to think. The worse the illness, the more time seems to drag.

Wired blogger Maryn McKenna, who sat down with the movie's science advisor, seems to agree comparing the fatality of the disease in the movie (four days) to Nipah, which leads to deal in 14 to 16 days.

Zuge then goes on to point out the unlikelihood of one medical character saving the day (actress Kate Winslet):

. . . character-driven screenplays like this one become parables, with cardboard characters standing in for what is really a nuanced cast of thousands.

And what about the picture of apocalyptic looking streets and mass chaos. Zuge said this is not the reality of an epidemic:

Finally, pandemics are never everywhere. Even in the midst of history’s worst, ordinary life has always lurched on. Millions died from the flu in 1918, but many more millions were untouched. The early years of AIDS unfolded against a breathtakingly bland backdrop — the social equivalent of the crystalline blue sky on 9/11. Walk one block from hospitals on whose wards all hell is breaking loose and you would never know there is a problem.

According to McKenna, one of the movie's biggest mistakes is the speed with which a vaccine was found, approved and distributed. It would take much longer, and we wouldn't be so hopeful.

Watch the trailer:

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