‘Contagion’ depicts realistic viral chaos

Robert Starr

[Corrected Sept. 11: Changed Lauren Meyers title]

Monster movies are scary, but they aren’t that scary. Sharks, snakes, spiders, mutant beasts — sure, they can kill you, but that’s about all they can do. Viruses, on the other hand, are a whole different beast. Not only can they kill you, but they’re far too small to see and work by invading your own body’s cells and using them against you. And they’re everywhere, including on the silver screen in Steven Soderbergh’s latest movie, “Contagion,” opening today.

Not that this is any new territory. It’s been explored before in “Outbreak” and “The Andromeda Strain,” among others, but it’s a cautionary tale worth repeating. The seasonal flu, in an average year, hospitalizes some 200,000 people in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, with some years being worse than others. The infamous 1918 Spanish flu, for instance, killed an estimated 50 million people, making it responsible for more deaths than World War I.

The virus in “Contagion,” however, puts the 1918 epidemic to shame. And, though the trailer suggests something along the lines of an obsessive-compulsive’s alarmist nightmare, the final result seems a bit more consistent with reality. The virus is scary, but well within the realm of believability, which makes it all the more frightening.

The speed at which it spreads is much lower than it could have been in a more brainless Hollywood movie, with a reproduction number, or R0, of four or so. This means that a given individual who has contracted the virus will, on average, spread it to four people. Thanks to exponential growth, however, that’s more than enough to generate a full-blown epidemic. If one person passes the virus on to four people over the course of a few days and then they pass it over to another four and so on and so forth, there could be a million people infected in less than a month.

However, not all viruses spread from human to human. For instance, the ongoing H5N1 (avian flu) scare hasn’t yet caused a pandemic. So far, it has only spread from infected chickens to people who come in close contact with them, but not from those people to other humans. The fictional virus in “Contagion,” rather, follows a similar trajectory to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic: it originally spread among pigs on Mexican farms, then from pigs to humans and ultimately from humans to humans.

Like the seasonal flu or common cold, the “Contagion” disease spreads through direct contact with an infected individual, though not all interactions with infected people lead to transmission. The book “Understanding Viruses” by Teri Shors explains that viruses have a tough time getting through our skin since it is dry, acidic and contains bacterial flora designed to protect the body from infection. The skin could, however, be used as a transport to somewhere on your body where it’s easier for a virus to get inside. If you shake an infected person’s hand after he coughed in it, for instance, and then use that hand to rub your eyes, the virus can get inside you that way.

“Contagion,” while definitely science fiction, has enough scientific fact behind it to address genuine issues and suggest a very real and scary possibility. “The 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic turned out to be relatively mild, and, consequently, the general public and funding agencies may have lost sight of the importance of pandemic preparedness,” said Director for the Division of Statistics and Scientific Computation, Lauren Meyers.

“There will be a next pandemic, which could be much more severe than the one in 2009. This movie reminds us of the importance of a quick and effective medical and humanitarian response.”

The virus itself is just a jumping-off point to explore a very human story about paranoia and fear. However, “Contagion” will still hopefully raise awareness of how delicate we humans are. Though we may feel like we’re the dominant species on this planet, something we can’t even see could take us out in the blink of an eye.