THE guttural cougher behind me and the explosive sneezer to my right did not really help when I saw Contagion last week.
Perhaps the world’s first epidemiological thriller, the new Steven Soderbergh film imagines what might happen if an entity like the bat-borne Nipah virus ever became reassorted to create an infectious agent that was both easily transmissible and deadly in humans.
Public health experts have of course been warning about the risk of this kind of pandemic for years, though fortunately the viruses that have jumped the species barrier recently, such as swine flu, have been more easily contained.
Still, many believe the big one could be just around the corner and Contagion examines that scenario with more attention to scientific detail than you might expect from a Hollywood movie (though why Kate Winslet’s hero epidemiologist chooses to storm around a disease-ridden Minneapolis without a face mask remains one of the film’s unsolved mysteries).
Professor Ian Lipkin, from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, was one of the script advisers, working with the actors and helping construct a model of the fictional virus.
He hopes the film will motivate action to improve underfunded public health systems and fight disease in the developing as well as the developed world.
“We need more scientists”, Professor Lipkin says.
Which brings me to what is perhaps the most surprising thing about Contagion — its undisputed heroes are the public health officials and scientists who battle to contain the disease and develop a vaccine.
And, in a complete break with Hollywood tradition, the maverick alleging an official cover-up while spruiking his own homoeopathic remedy, is actually the villain of the piece. (That maverick is played by Jude Law, inexplicably sporting what I think was meant to be an Australian accent, though friends thought he might have been aiming at Cockney.)
Contagion’s positive view of organisations like the WHO and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has raised hackles in some quarters. “Leftist dogma” is one of the milder insults to be found in the blogosphere.
One online spray accuses the film of advocating that we all “act like sheep” in the face of such a disaster, trusting “Big Brother” to come to our rescue.
Because we’d be so much better off entrusting our wellbeing to Law’s mysteriously accented conman, and the similar shysters who will inevitably spring up if we do ever face a public health disaster on this scale.
I found it refreshing to see a mainstream movie portraying science in a positive light, especially given how ingrained the scepticism about scientific research and the people who practise it seems to have become in some quarters.
Whether it’s climate change or vaccine safety, the conspiracy theorists take any opportunity to dismiss scientists as corrupt ideologues with an agenda to push.
Contagion isn’t perfect but, if it helps to shift that perception, I’ll be celebrating.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 31 October 2011
See Jane’s column on the Ig Nobel awards — it provides answers to one of life’s wee questions.