In researching this blog post, I never anticipated the breadth of public health-oriented movies that have been made in the last three decades or so. Stanford University even offers a freshman seminar course entitled “Infectious Disease: Fact or Fiction” which asks students to spend a semester picking apart the accuracy and appropriateness of the science behind the issues presented in such films.
Opening this Friday in cities across the US, thriller-cum-epidemiological narrative “Contagion” depicts the path of destruction left by a highly infectious and lethal virus. In an attempt to counter the prevailing idea that science in pop culture is invariably exaggerated and unrealistic, director Steven Soderbergh went out of his way to hire virologists and epidemiologists who would insist upon accuracy in descriptions of viral infection and transmission. Some scenes from the film were even filmed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta.
Even more exciting for the public health and infection control communities is the teaching opportunity that this film’s release provides. Participant Media, a promotion company with a conscience (the people behind marketing and awareness campaigns for films such as “Waiting for ‘Superman’”, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and “Food, Inc.”) has put together a website tailored to maximize the movie’s potential health education impact. Subpages connect the reader to information about leading “virus hunters,” a health map indicating the activity level of disease foci across the world, and even activities to test your knowledge of and preparedness for various outbreak-related events or issues.
[Aside: the author ardently hopes that anyone affiliated with the UM School of Public Health will be sure to answer "who discovered the cure for polio?" correctly...]
Readers can even connect to their own personal facebook page via the website, in order to participate in a disease transmission simulation. This impressive little application puts you right into the world of the movie, presenting a video of a doctor concerned about the simulated patient’s social network and possible correlates to disease transmission. After answering a few simple questions and waiting through a short trailer for the film, you are ‘diagnosed’ with a likelihood to have been Patient Zero in a hypothetical viral pandemic of indeterminate size or impact. The enthralling graphics and eerie background music distract participants from the lack of scientific rigor in this context…but it’s all in good fun. And for those who are a bit unnerved by their conclusions, the site also provides a cache of information on prevention: recommending vaccinations whenever possible, touting handwashing as a crucial health maintenance task, and even linking to the CDC’s flu preparedness website.
Even without all the fascinating extra resources created in support of “Contagion”‘s release, plenty of people were excited to see a promising public health movie in the pipelines. Hopefully the huge media impact that has already been made by this example (and other types) of creative marketing will pull in large numbers of viewers and leave them with a better understanding of the risks posed by viral disease and epidemics as the world becomes a smaller, better-connected place.