Trying to make sense of nonsense

The world goes viral for Contagion

With a regularity that is comparable to that of the seasonal flu, Hollywood seems to come up with killer virus blockbusters. Most of these seem to operate on plots based on evil megalomaniac scientists infecting escape-savvy monkeys with killer virus-strains, or the archetype bespectacled science boffins who are just too out of touch with reality to come up with a satisfying solution before the military steps in to blast the infected town into oblivion by means of a nuclear bomb. ‘Contagion’, Hollywood’s newest attempt, promises improvement. It aims to realistically portray a global pandemic, and they’ve hired Dr Ian Lipkin, who is the John Snow professor of Epidemiology and head of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University, to help them get their facts straight (see the video below for his thoughts on making the movie).

[blip.tv http://blip.tv/play/hNVhgs_VPgI width=”480″ height=”300″]

One of those facts is Kate Winslet’s new tagline: “The average person touches their face three to five times every minute”, which opens the film’s ominous trailer and sets the scene for two hours of public health education. With the slightly less cinematic swine flu pandemic fresh in memory, director Steven Soderbergh seems set on using ‘Contagion’ to teach us that despite our recent experiences, we should not take epidemics lightly. It is an ambitious aim for a Hollywood movie, whose main goal undoubtedly is to win their investors’ money back, preferably with an added margin.

The film attempts to show us every single aspect of a pandemic: from the very first infected patient, through its initial global spread, via every single attempt at achieving to produce an effective vaccine and a doubtful homeopathic miracle cure, to the final stages where the world seems to be getting back on its feet. Moreover, the storyline unfolds through a dozen of different characters, each of whom has a complicated backstory and is involved with the virus or the cure in a different way, making it hard to grasp what is going on and what the main story is supposed to be; only the last five minutes appear to be reserved to make that bit clear.

The chaotic sequence of events might make the story a bit haphazard, but it does win points for making the whole thing seem realistic. There is even some actual science in there when epidemiologists start explaining the meaning of the basic reproduction number, or as it is perhaps will be known to all after this film: R0, to a committee of officials to stress the seriousness of the situation. R0 is an important number in infectious disease epidemiology, and indicates how many new infections, on average, one infected person causes. This number ranges from 2 to 3 for your basic household flu, to 12 to 18 for measles and is an important for making the impressive maps that show how fast a particular disease will spread across the world. No wonder then that the officials are duly terrified when it is announced that this number has suddenly sprung from 2 to 5.

The film is a feast for those interested in the topic with all its little sound bites about the ins and outs of epidemiology. Although it does show most of the processes involved in dealing with a pandemic (they’ve left out viruses’ nasty habit of mutating and complicating the whole process of creating vaccines for instance), it might have taken just a bit too much on its plate. Nevertheless, ‘Contagion’ is a pleasant break from the killer-virus genre in that it takes its science seriously, but it might be a bit too serious and realistic to convince the film fans that come in for the big names.


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