How Close Is 'Contagion' Movie To Reality?

HOUSTON - Scientists at Galveston's National Laboratory are talking about Contagion, a star-studded movie out this month that follows a fast-moving global viral epidemic.

"I thought the movie was built on factual basis. Clearly, it is a dramatic portrayal of a very difficult situation. It was built on solid science and things that would likely happen in this kind of outbreak," said Jim LeDuc, director of the Galveston National Laboratory.

LeDuc, who also worked at the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization, has the experience to know what happens in this type of real life situation. He said he, too, came out of the theater after seeing Contagion looking for the hand sanitizer.

LeDuc worked on the SARS outbreak in 2003, influenza, Ebola and other diseases that pop up as new exotic emerging diseases. He said the top current concerns are influenza and the avian influenza in Asia.

"It continues to exist. We still see cases, and it is kind of smoldering along. It is not transmitted easily form person to person, but we are concerned it may be," said LeDuc. "We know that these viruses mutate, they change. So, the fact we are not seeing person-to-person transmission now doesn't mean that we shouldn't stop looking. It may very well happen."

As shown with SARS and the swine flu, international travel makes everyone more vulnerable to emerging diseases.

"You can be infected in any corner of the world and be home kissing your kids goodnight and seeing onset of disease," said LeDuc.

"Diseases can emerge anywhere in the world. They can emerge right there in Houston or can emerge across the world. We know that when it comes to infectious diseases we have a small world. People can travel from any one spot in the world to another spot in 72 hours," said Barbara Reynolds, crisis communication specialist with the CDC.

CDC experts are continually investigating threats from the CDC headquarters in Atlanta.

"Over the last two years, the CDC has sent out people from it's headquarters here 750 times," said Reynolds. "There is so much of that movie that portrays exactly what we have to do every day here at the CDC, along with our local health departments like there in Houston, trying to protect people from disease that can cause harm."

LeDuc said the same work done at the CDC can be done at the Galveston National Lab at the University of Texas Medical Branch. It is one of the largest and most sophisticated infectious disease research facilities in the United States and is achieving an international reputation for its research capabilities. It is the largest BSL-4 lab on any academic campus.

"We work on things like West Nile virus. We work on Ebola and other viruses that have a very high mortality rate and where safety is of greatest concern, " said LeDuc. "The building is specifically designed for that research, and we are very fortunate to have that capability here. The idea is to keep the bugs in the lab and the people who work on them safe and protected from the environment so that nothing escapes."

Along with the research, scientists also work on creating vaccines in the specialized lab that was built to withstand hurricanes. LeDuc said the lab survived Hurricane Ike with no issues.

The researcher said there are some general take home messages that the public can learn from the movie:

  • Get your annual flu shot.
  • If you are sick, stay home.
  • If your child is sick, keep him or her home.
  • Keep your hands out of your mouth.
  • Avoid crowds, if you can, during flu season.
  • Wash you hands, wash your hands, wash your hands.

"The idea isn't to scare people, but it is to make sure people are prepared. Understand what the government has been worried about for pandemic preparedness and realize should something like this happen we are not standing flat-footed. The government and public health have thought about it and have some plans in place," said LeDuc.

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