The Villian is a Virus
Sep 22, 2011

If you’ve seen the movie Contagion, the first thing you probably asked yourself was,

“Is it possible? Could this really happen?”

It’s likely that you then began to consider all the things you had touched, and all the people you had come in contact with in the few minutes it took to exit the theatre.  In the hours following the movie, you were probably still fixated on washing your hands.  You may have started to count how many times you had touched your face.  And you most likely cringed every time you heard someone cough.
While movie goers across the country are wondering whether we could ever suffer from a Hollywood sized epidemic as dangerous as the one witnessed in the movie Contagion, many experts are weighing in with phrases like “possible”, “plausible”  and “painfully,yes”.
If you haven’t seen Contagion, the movie follows the rapid progress of a lethal airborne virus that kills within days.  As the movie unfolds, so does the fast-moving epidemic that spans the globe and has the CDC and the entire worldwide health community racing to find a cure and control the panic that ensues among the threatened population.   Since the movie opened over a week ago, there have been lots of people questioning whether something as big as this could actually happen.

CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden


If you believe that Contagion is simply an elaborate plot to instill fear, and nothing more, than perhaps you have been plagued by Hollywood hype.  However, if you are inquisitive enough to take a closer look at the possibilities that exist, you may find this movie to be an important reminder to us all – a reminder of why we should appreciate and advocate for stronger public health practices across the nation.
In a special behind-the-scenes event last week, hosted by The CDC Foundation, I had the privilege of hearing from three CDC experts on the subject of Contagion and real life disease detection.   While they acknowledged that there is a continuous and unpredictable threat of disease all across the world,  they also elaborated on the important, real-life work of the many local, state and federal public health workers who continuously monitor these threats and try their best to protect us from the exact scenario we see in Contagion.
CDC Director, Dr. Thomas Frieden spoke candidly with the audience and admitted that

“while many aspects of the movie may seem over the top, we’ve actually seen lots of these issues in play.”

He wasn’t trying to create drama when he explained,

 “There is a new investigation every day, and unfortunately we don’t know going in what to expect.”

He simply wants people to realize that in real life, just like in the movie,

“The villain is a virus”, and “what unites us as people is our common enemies”.

The panel of CDC experts included Dr. Khan and Dr. Schuchat.


Dr. Frieden, along with Dr. Ali Khan, Director of CDC’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, and Dr. Anne Schuchat, Director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, were all appreciative that the movie depicted the CDC as the important “action agency” that it is.  Dr. Frieden suggested that the movie helped illustrate the many steps that are taken, “Everything from early detection, to the quick field response, through the laboratory diagnostics, and following through to the public health measures that are taken”.
Throughout the evening, Dr. Khan and Dr. Schuchat elaborated on their personal experiences as disease detectives and spoke candidly about the concerns of super-spreaders such as SARS, as well as challenges they’ve seen in identifying and containing diseases such as Ebola.  In the end, Dr. Frieden applauded the movie for

“highlighting the work that goes into disease investigation” and for providing “an opportunity to introduce public health to a new generation of people”.

But one of the most interesting comments of the evening came not from a scientist, but from a politician.   Honorary host Georgia Senator Johnny Isakson, a long time supporter of The CDC Foundation, applauded the CDC by stating that

Honorary host Senator Johnny Isakson (GA).


“The CDC is at the heart and soul of everything that protects us…protecting the health, safety and welfare of not just America, but of the world.”  and went on to explain that “In an emergency, you can’t privatize a response. You must have government action.”

These comments call to question some of our government’s biggest challenges.  How do you ensure you are prepared for something as big as we see in Contagion when you have just cut over a billion dollars from your public health funding?  At a time when local health departments have lost approximately 29,000 workers, or 19% of their workforce, in a matter of two years, this movie highlights a very realistic concern.  Whether we realize it or not – and whether it is funded properly or not – people all over the world rely on the CDC and the support of local health departments.  Are we doing our best to ensure that they are prepared for the unimaginable?
One specific scene in the movie illustrates this better than any other.  As the CDC disease detective is hurriedly preparing an emergency response location for what she realizes will be a devastating disease, a local representative marches in questioning her, “Whose budget will this come out of?”
Sadly, that line really struck a chord.   Certainly, someone has to pay the bill for us to defend ourselves against these unexpected diseases, but as public health budget cuts continue, what will the future hold?  Thankfully there are organizations like The CDC Foundation who are working hard to provide additional support to the CDC.  As an independent, nonprofit organization they help ensure that there is a collaborative effort from both inside and outside the CDC, by forging effective partnerships with individuals, foundations, corporations and organizations, that can all work together to tackle the enormous public health challenges that face our nation, and our society, each day.
However, we must encourage people to speak out in support of public health funding.  I’m fairly certain that public health workers were grateful for what they learned during last week’s behind-the- scenes discussion with these leading experts.  Now we can only hope that this Hollywood attention will invite millions of others to consider the importance of public health as they begin to understand just what it may mean to their individual health and well-being.

I’ve you’ve seen the movie Contagion, I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this movie and it’s messages?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.  

All photograph from this event were provided by The CDC Foundation and taken by Professional Image Photography.

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