Nothing spreads like fear

Contagion (2011)

Had the joy of seeing Contagion last Wednesday at the Salford Cinema Club.

After which I had to call my ex-wife to discuss.

Sarah had applied to join the Centre for Diseases and Control (CDC) back before we ever met and although she didn’t get the position, she later did get into the Heath Protection Agency (HPA) which seems to be the UK equivalent. So we use to sometimes talk about her role on the Tuberculosis register. Most people don’t know but tuberculosis is still a major killer…

Around 9000 cases of TB are currently reported each year in the United Kingdom. Most cases occur in major cities, particularly in London.

Although TB infection and Epidemiology was interesting it was generally not so bad (relevantly talking, specially if your one of the people unlike to spend time in a crack den or a shady part of the inner city) when Alexander Litvinenko (the russian spy) was poisoned using radiation. The whole of the HPA went into overdrive.

Sarah was working something like 18hour days 7 days a week while they attempted to track what happened, who he had been in contact with, who they had been in contact with, for how long, where, etc, etc…

Contagion lasts 31 days and its so clear how the panic and fear spreads so quickly.

I won’t spoil it for anyone, but lets just say it seems so hollywood how quick it spreads and the mis-information which spreads with it. I say hollywood but actually I remember Sarah telling me some of the serious concens people had when phoning up the HPA hotline. Of course, I expect all those are confidential, but the thing which got me was the fear and confusion in peoples questions. The frequency of questions was also mind blowing… 100’s seems low from what I remember Sarah saying.

Panic grew when the HPA tried to track down people who possibly might have been infected. Many more called to check there own status. (I think I’m ok saying), some people who happened to be in the same bar 7 days before the poisoning called because they were deeply worried about themselves. I’m not a epidemiologist but this has got to be panic and frankly stupid (waiting for someone to say actually I’m wrong).

Anyway, I felt the film give a true but fictional account of the issues with tracking down sources, which information to spread and how difficult it is to synthesis cures fit for humans. In fact on the last one, it seems quite a few of our cures started life by being tested by its creators.

I did feel the film didn’t take advantage of the mutation of viruses specially when vaccine is available in only a smaller set of the population. Sarah use to point out this problem with parents not allowing there kids to get the MMR vaccine. (once again I’m not a epidemiologist) from memory, Its becomes a problem when there are parts of the population which are protected and others which are not. The virus can mutate, become stronger and even over throw the current vaccine. This is not good! I won’t say which part of the film but I thought this was coming…

During the credits, the cinema going public was silent. The dead silence just hung there in the air, people got up and left with the minimum of fuss and noise. It was like everyone knew this was going to happen and each of us was powerless to stop it.

Sarah always said and did say again, we are well overdue another worldwide epidemic. I felt the film, did a very good job of reinforcing this…. I certainly will want to see this again, and I’ve offered to take Sarah and her new husband along because I really want to get the insiders perspective on what they think of the film and how it covers parts.

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.