15 September 2011

#1 Box Office Movie "Contagion": Realistic Prelude to Global Collapse?


The current movie box office champion, Contagion, is being praised for its realistic portrayal of a global outbreak of a killer virus. A wide range of experts were consulted in the attempt by movie producers to make the film as realistic as possible.
It's hard to name many Hollywood blockbusters that are as invested in the realities of science as Contagion....very few Hollywood productions realistically portray the process of science, both its successes and frustrations. That's what makes Contagion unique. Although it is by no means flawlessly accurate - it's not a NOVA documentary - Contagion has been well fact-checked compared to most science-y blockbusters.

The movie's exhilarating pace never sags, even in scenes that have the potential to bore people out of their minds: a meeting between an epidemic intelligence service officer (Winslet) and the Minnesota Department of Health, for example. But Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns practice what is in effect very successful science communication: they keep the viewer's attention as they explain statistics like the all-important R0 - the average number of people an infected person infects - and truths about the scientific process, such as the fact that before researchers can study a virus, they need to figure out how to grow it in cell cultures in the lab, without the virus destroying all the cells.

... _NewScientist

Given the assumptions about the fictitious virus, MEV-1:
  • It can be spread by direct or indirect contact, by airborne droplets
  • It kills quickly, within a few days of exposure
  • The virus remains contagious in the environment for several hours or days
  • It kills over 20% of those infected
etc, it is easy to see how such an infection could lead to a global economic collapse.

Such a virus would not lead to the extinction of humans -- unless it left survivors sterile -- but in the age of high volume global travel, such an easily spread virus would end up in most of the world's large cities within just a few days of hitting a busy airport such as O'Hare, Heathrow, or JFK. From there, it would spread radially to smaller cities and the countryside. Air, train, and bus travel would not likely be shut down until it was too late.

Hospitals and clinics would be particularly fertile foci for contagion. Most doctors, nurses, paramedical personnel, EMS, etc. would be infected.

Schools would likewise be hit early and hard. Teachers, children, bus drivers, would all carry the virus home with them. Any workplace where a lot of people work in close proximity, use the same machines, and share the same facilities, would provide the epidemic with a host of new victims.

Even if 80% of the infected eventually survived, a lot of society's most valuable members would have been lost. Regional and national economies would collapse and take time to restore. The transportation infrastructure and product supply lines would take many years to rebuild and replace. Power structures would quickly and radically shift. Central governmental control would be lost for years in many nations, and permanently in others.

I am describing what would be the best case scenario. In real life, an effective vaccine would not be developed or produced nearly so quickly as in the film. The dying would probably continue for months and years as the virus mutated and came back through the same populations a second, third, or fourth time.

So, what do you do, given this very real (although perhaps unlikely) scenario?


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Blogger Will Brown said...

Do the one thing actors hate the most - cover your face. A simple fiber dust mask (with or w/o a couple drops of bleach) and el cheapo safety glasses from your favorite sporting goods store will reduce much of the potential for transmission. A bottle of hand sanitizing gel (or even a 3-to-1 mix of white vinegar and water in a spray bottle) and regular application will further reduce the threat. Preventing infection isn't nearly the problem recognising the threat through all the usual communication noise is.

Friday, 16 September, 2011  

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“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act” _George Orwell

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