By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD
Hollywood's latest thriller “Contagion” seems to have captured the public’s interest with strong sales at the box office. In the movie tens of millions of people are wiped out by the rapid spread of a killer airborne disease. It's a scenario real-life experts say is entirely plausible.
“Contagion” does a good job of “depicting something as realistically as possible,” infectious disease specialist Dr. Kamran Khan said. The film's fictional mystery disease, MEV-1, originates in Hong Kong. The first victim is a Minneapolis woman (Gwyneth Paltrow), who catches the disease after a business trip in Hong Kong. Two days later she's dead. The film poses questions similar to those that arose during the 2003 SARS pandemic – also originating in Hong Kong – that killed nearly 50 people in Toronto alone.
Khan said it's because of our interconnected world that diseases can so easily travel from one place to another. But flight technology and social media have also helped professionals to track and fight outbreaks he added.
Khan created biodiaspora.com to analyze real-time flight schedules, human and livestock populations and health data from around the world as a way to track the spread of infectious diseases. The program was created in response to Toronto's SARS crisis, and later predicted how the H1N1 flu virus would spread around the world in 2009.
In the weeks leading up to the Olympic Games came to Vancouver last February, experts kept track online of viruses around the world, and the number of travellers from those countries heading to Vancouver. Khan says these types of international events hold real potential for global-scale outbreaks such as the one in “Contagion.”
Khan added that individuals need to be prepared at home, and think “beyond just what we can do when a disease shows up.” In the case of a pandemic, Khan said people should be seeing their physicians, making sure their vaccines are up to date, and taking medicines pre-emptively for certain diseases that might be prevalent in other parts of the world. “Public health tends not to be very sexy, but it's our most important line of defense against pandemics and other types of infectious disease threats,” Khan said.