'Contagion' checkup

  • Article by: MAURA LERNER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 8, 2011 - 2:35 PM

Could it happen here? We get a second opinion from two disease detectives.

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Jude Law in "Contagion."

Photo: Claudette Barius, Warner Bros.

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In the new movie "Contagion," we see Hollywood's version of Minnesota -- and the world -- gripped by a deadly outbreak.

But how realistic is it?

The Star Tribune asked two leading experts to preview the film and share their reactions: Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the Minnesota state epidemiologist since 2007, and her predecessor, Dr. Michael Osterholm.

Both have spent their careers battling dangerous outbreaks, including the 2009 H1N1 flu pandemic, and they're paid to worry about worst-case scenarios. Osterholm, a professor at the University of Minnesota, even wrote a best-selling book on the subject: "Living Terrors: What America Needs to Know to Survive the Coming Bioterrorist Catastrophe."

Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Both gave it a thumbs up.

On a scale of 1-10, how realistic was it?

"I think the [outbreak] scenario is probably an 8 or 9," Osterholm said. "The response, I think, is maybe a 5."

He said the film does a relatively good job of showing how medical experts go about trying to stop a dangerous epidemic. But a real outbreak would involve far more than the few heroic doctors in the movie.

Which parts don't ring true?

The fictional disease detectives made some rookie mistakes, Lynfield said.

In one scene, an investigator played by Kate Winslet calls a victim who's riding on a bus, and almost certainly infectious, and tells him to get off at the next stop. In real life, said Lynfield, "she should have quarantined everybody else on the bus."

One of the most cringe-worthy moments, to the two Minnesotans, was when Winslet's character, who works for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is met with open hostility by state health officials when she comes to the Twin Cities. "Clearly, that would not have been the response from the Minnesota Department of Health," said Osterholm, who worked there for 24 years.

In fact, the state and CDC have worked closely on numerous disease investigations as well as preparations for future outbreaks, and Minnesota has a stellar national reputation in the field. But in the film, written by Golden Valley native Scott Z. Burns, the Minnesotans act as if they've barely even heard of an infectious disease.

"The response really was way off," said Lynfield, but she chalked it up to artistic license.

The title refers to the spread of panic, as well as the deadly germs. A legitimate fear?

Absolutely, both experts said. "I think it would be much worse," said Osterholm. In the film, there are hints of violence and riots as the body count grows. "Fear and panic. Once that happens, it's a cascade of events," he said. "I don't think people realize how quickly crowds could become unruly."

What struck you as particularly realistic?

"I think the Jude Law character was very important, and very real," said Osterholm. Law plays a blogger who spreads conspiracy theories on the Internet: about the government covering up a cure, and a plot to enrich the pharmaceutical industry. Osterholm says he's seen that kind of paranoia before: Two years ago, people accused the World Health Organization of trumping up the H1N1 outbreak for the benefit of vaccine makers. In an even deadlier outbreak, he said, "I have no doubt that there would be this response, from some, that this is a manufactured epidemic to assist the pharmaceutical companies. The mistrust would be huge."

How prepared are we to handle this kind of outbreak?

"Prepared is a relative term," Osterholm said. "I think we're better prepared today to respond, at least in the United States, than we probably ever have been." But, he said, "that could fundamentally change" in the next two years, because of budget cuts to federal and state health departments.

Lynfield agreed: "The one thing this film really does well is show that it's extremely important to have a good public health system. Globally. It really does show that it's important to have dedicated, talented people working in public health." But she fears the progress they've made in the past decade is threatened. "The resources are dwindling."

We don't want to give away the ending. But how quickly would it be possible to end such an outbreak?

"I worry about movies like this setting up the idea: 'Well, if there's a problem we can fix it by some magic bullet,'" said Osterholm.

Science, he said, can only do so much in the face of a massive public health emergency. Trying to solve it in a matter of months? "That's absolutely not realistic."

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